The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

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The Endocannabinoid System

(Almost everything you need to know... and some other stuff that is simply fascinating)

Some will argue – us too – that the discovery of the Endocannabinoid system is one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 21st century. 

It explains thousands of previous unknowns.

For scientists, the discovery of the Endocannabinoid System has provided scientists an insight into the fundamentals of how our nervous system functions, and for us, it helps us better understand how Phytocannabinoids (plant-derived cannabinoids such as CBD) interact with this magnificently complex network of receptors. 

Hopefully, at the end of this article, you will have a better understanding  Endocannabinoid System, and what it means for your well-being, longevity, healthspan and quality of life. 

As part of that, we will make sense of some of the well-being applications of Phytocannabinoids (CBD) too. 

A (very) short summary

At points, this article gets deep into the details. You’ll be glad to know that we’ve taken all the key points and summarised them below for you:

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The Endocannabinoid System is our central (and peripheral) nervous system’s telecommunications network. It is a matrix of receptors that monitor and organise our internal workings. Without it, imagine a city at rush hour without a traffic light system. 

It monitors our internal environment & sends signals to our brain when things aren’t quite right. Its job is to safeguard our internal equilibrium and ensure our body continues to function correctly.

 

We maintains a state of internal balance known as Homeostasis. 

This unbelievably complex structure consists of three main components: cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2 networks), Endocannabinoids (fatty molecules) and enzymes (that breakdown the cannabinoids).

The network of receptors interact with Endocannabinoids (we produce those) or Phytocannabinoids (from the cannabis plant, such as THC and CBD, or the ones found in Shilajit, and Caryophyllene).

As the Endocannabinoid System is a neuromodulator it plays a role in both physiological and cognitive processes such as mood, appetite, pain, immune response, metabolic energy and neurological disorders [source] among many other activities.

We can take a daily supplementation of Phytocannabinoids to support our Endocannabinoid Systems. The Cannabinoids found in Hemp and Cannabis are exponentially more active in our bodies than our Endocannabinoids, which is why they have so many applications for our well-being. 

 

How the ECS Was Discovered?

The 1960s were boom years for scientific experimentation with psychoactive substances. Some we still, to this day, do not fully understand. 
 

Researchers were looking to answer questions surrounding the Cannabis plant and why it has such a powerful effect on our bodies and minds. It was in 1964 that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC to us) and cannabidiol (CBD) were discovered.

Research was slow, and it was not until 1988 during a study at St. Louis University did Allyn Howlett and William Devane note that a network of neurotransmitter receptors impacted the way our brain and body function.

During further studies in the 1990’s (research was still slow due to the illegal status of the Cannabis plant) where a team discovered that the effect of THC was due to it connecting with receptors in the brain. 

They – almost accidentally –  uncovered an endogenous biological system which seemed to have a significant influence over both the physiological and neurological activity in the human body, and was influenced by cannabis compounds.

This was the discovery of Endocannabinoids. ‘Endo’ translates to ‘within’, and we produce them naturally. 

As a slight digression, it was mind blowing to learn that our own bodies produce chemicals which look staggeringly similar to plant derived phytocannabinoids.

It is quite something to discover that our bodies produce chemicals extremely similar to those found in Cannabis!

I am resisting the urge to go even further off track with this (because it is truly fascinating) but two major Endocannabinoids our bodies produce are called anandamide (AEA) 2arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG).

Chemically, they look like THC. More on those later!

Endocannabinoids vs Phytocannabinoids
Both play a role in pleasure, reward (dopamine) and appetite, and an abundance of these endocannabinoids can have a psychoactive effect (the Runners High [source] is a great example). 

 

But, what did the researches uncover about the Endocannabinoid System? What is it, and what is it’s function in for our bodies? 

 

How Homeostasis & the Endocannabinoid System are connected.

This important word here is: homeostasis.

Homeostasis is a fancy word for everything being in perfect balance despite external influences.

There are millions of tiny reactions and processes that our body does to maintain balance – it is fundamental for our survival. 

 

Even after years of writing about this topic, and research, it’s still quite a difficult concept to wrap the old nogin’ around. But just imagine…

The Endocannabinoid System acts in a similar way to a traffic light network in a busy city at rush hour.

 

A complex of buttons, signals, lights and cameras (the endocannabinoid system) controls the traffic – all of which is controlled by a central office monitoring the traffic (our brain).

 

The cars, busses and pavements are packed with people going to work, picking up dinner for their families and heading home (neurotransmitters); in the other direction, lorries packed with essential goods and supplies for businesses, supermarkets & shops (also neurotransmitters); there are emergency services trying to fight through to attend an emergency (neurotransmitters also). 

 

To keep the city functioning, the central controller (our brain) uses the cameras & signals to understand which lanes need to be opened, and which ones to be stopped.

The traffic controller carefully orchestrates the busy flow of activity to ensure the city doesn’t descend into chaos: food gets onto the shelves of the supermarkets, people get home to their families safely, and any emergencies are solved quickly. 

 

Without the light system to monitor and control the people moving in every direction the complex of human activity would descend into chaos. 

 

This is the role of the Endocannabinoid System. To monitor, control and orchestrate the flow of neuro-transmitting chemicals to make sure that the right functions are taking place at the right time. All in order to make sure the body keeps functioning optimally.

 

Being a neuromodulator, the Endocannabinoid System plays a role within both physiological and cognitive processes such as mood, appetite, pain, immune response and neurological disorders [source]

If we are to get a little deeper into how the Endocannabinoid System is formulated, and how cannabinoids activate/modulate, it’s important to learn about the CB1 and CB2 receptors. 

 

How does the Endocannabinoid System work?

The network is comprised in three parts: tiny landing points (called Cannabinoid Receptors), endogenous cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) and enzymes used for the creation and disposal of cannabinoids. 

To send the signals, our body naturally synthesises Endocannabinoids to activate or modulate our body’s response. 

The little receptors act almost like little tap valves (sometimes explained as locks and keys). The cannabinoids interact with receptors to activate or regulate their activity (open or close them). 

The open or close signal changes the chemicals produced at the synapse and causes physiological response, which starts a chain of events to change our biology. 

 

Once the biological response is complete enzymes come along and destroy them.

How the Endocannabinoid System Works

The CB1 & CB2 Receptors

CB1 Receptors 

The CB1 receptors are found in our brain and central nervous system (CNS) but can also be found in ‘peripheral tissues’.

The CB1 network’s role is the regulation of mood, pain/ sensation, cognitive function (learning, memory, cognition, co-ordination) and immune response. 

The mystery behind why THC causes feelings of euphoria, altered perception and the munchies (increased appetite) was solved by discovering that the cannabinoid activated the CB1 receptor. 

There are potential medical applications for THC, however, it’s pshycoactive effect (and therefore, illegal status in the UK) has made research and product development very difficult. 

 

 

CB2 Receptors 

The CB2 receptors are found in the peripheral nervous system (nerves in your extremities, like arms and legs), the digestive system and specialised cells in the immune system (like macrophasges, T cells & B cells). 

It is the CB2 receptors that contribute signficantly to maintaining homeostasis, and maintaining a nice and balanced internal enviroment. Processes like the regulation of inflammation and oxidative stress.

There is some research that links the CB2 receptors to the regulation of the body’s immune response, meaning targeting activation plays a role in the reduction/escalation of symptoms of inflammatory diseases and autoimmune diseases. 

How do we keep our Endocannabinoid System healthy?

Like all biological structures that are infinitely complex, sometimes things go wrong. There are cases where naturally we may have a disruption or problem with our Endocannabinoid system. 

There are cases where our bodies are unable to produce enough endocannabinoids or receptors, our receptors may not function properly. It is possible that we produce too many enzymes which are produced to break down cannabinoids. 

Dysfunctions like these can cause chronic and long-term conditions that may lower our quality of life. 

You can absolutely support your Endocannabinoid System by eating foods rich in plant-based Phytocannabinoids (or supplements). The Phytocannabinoids from cannabis (like CBD) are exponentially more powerful than our Endocannabinoids.

 

Alternately, a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, a balanced healthy diet, drinking lots of water, exposure to the sun (not too much) and a regular pattern of sleep are also effective. 

How do we keep our Endocannabinoid System healthy?

If you’ve managed to get to this point in our guide of the Endocannabinoid System then I have to commend you on your dedication – or myself for keeping you interested. 

The Endocannabinoid System is supremely complex and new studies are uncovering ground-breaking learnings all the time. We will try to keep this article as up to date as we can, but it is important that you do have a look at other sources from credible experts. 

Ian McLaren

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