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What Is The Endocannabinoid System And What Does It Do?

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What Is The Endocannabinoid System And What Does It Do?

Ever wondered how CBD works in your body? Well, you’re not alone. In fact, there are a lot of great minds still wondering today.

The exact details on what CBD does in your body are still being researched. However, science does know one thing for sure: CBD interacts with something known as the Endocannabinoid System, or ECS for short.

CBD is a type of compound known as a cannabinoid. Cannabinoids got the canna part of their name from the cannabis plant, the plant from which cannabinoids were first isolated in 1940 and 1942.

Researchers first discovered a compound known as CBN, and two years later isolated CBD itself. Since then, over 100 different cannabinoids have been identified in the cannabis plant.

But it turns out that we don’t need to look too far to find cannabinoids. In fact, they are produced within our own bodies. Endocannabinoids (endo” from “endogenous,” based on the Greek “endo” (meaning “within,”) and “genous” (meaning “produced”) plus “cannabinoid,”) turn out to be a fundamental part of our body’s biochemistry.

What We Know About the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

What We Know About the Endocannabinoid System

The ECS is a relatively recent discovery. In 1988, researchers in St. Louis discovered receptors (now known as the CB1 receptor) in the brain which cannabinoids from the cannabis plant could bond to. Surprisingly, these receptors turned out to be the most abundant type in the brain. 

Despite this discovery, it took until the early 1990s for the ECS to truly be unveiled. Another receptor (CB2) was discovered to be at work in the immune system. 

In 1993, research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem took things a step further. They identified the first endocannabinoid: anandamide. While previous research had shown that cannabinoids had receptor sites in the body to bind to, the discovery of anandamide proved that the body was making cannabinoids of its own.

As it happened, anandamide was not alone. Another major endocannabinoid, 2-arachidonoylglycerol (or 2-AG) was also identified. Since then, many more endocannabinoids have been identified, but anandamide and 2-AG remain the most prominent and best studied.

In addition to these compounds, scientists have also identified a variety of enzymes responsible for breaking down and processing endocannabinoids within the body. 

Among these, two enzymes stand out the most: fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down anandamide, and monoacylglycerol acid lipase, responsible for breaking down 2-AG.

So far, these two receptors, two endocannabinoids, and two enzymes have been the subject of the bulk of the research on the ECS.

What is the ECS Doing in Our Bodies?

What is the ECS Doing in Our Bodies?

Once it was discovered, the obvious next question became just what is the function of the ECS?

The ECS is present in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Within the central nervous system, we find CB1 receptors, and within the peripheral nervous system (especially in the immune system) we find CB2 receptors.

In layman’s terms, this means that the ECS is all over your body. The receptor sites are plentiful — so clearly the ECS must be up to something important.

The exact function of the ECS remains something of an open question, but it is clear that the ECS is involved in regulating some of the body’s most vital functions. Research has suggested that the ECS is vital for our body’s ability to maintain homeostasis.

Homeostasis is the internal balance of your body’s various functions. It’s what your body uses to, well, keep itself alive and properly functioning. 

The ECS has been shown to be involved in almost everything your body does, including:

  • Impact mental functions like mood, learning, and memory
  • Regulating your appetite, digestion, and metabolism
  • Affecting your body’s response to stress
  • Acting on muscles for muscle formation and growth, as well as motor control
  • Regulating essential internal organs such as the cardiovascular system and liver
  • Helping with the function of nerves and skin
  • Playing a role in bone formation, repair, and growth
  • Regulating your sleep
  • Affecting reproductive functions 

Although the exact details of how the ECS affects these various systems remains a subject of research and debate, it has become strikingly obvious that the ECS is an absolutely vital part of our internal biochemistry.

With increasing evidence for the importance of the ECS, researchers have noted the possibility that disruptions or deficiencies in the ECS could be responsible for certain diseases. Early research has created a theory that ECS deficiencies could be the culprit behind diseases including fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraines

How Does CBD Affect the Endocannabinoid System?

How Does CBD Affect the Endocannabinoid System?

It turns out that CBD doesn’t have much affinity for either the CB1 or CB2 receptors. While it often doesn’t bind directly with these receptor sites, it may have a strong effect on how other cannabinoids bind with these sites.

Some researchers have suggested that the effects of CBD are produced less from CBD itself and from how it impacts the levels endocannabinoids within your body.

In this sense, CBD might act as a “reuptake inhibitor.” Similar to how antidepressant drugs block the reuptake of serotonin in the body, CBD may block the reuptake of endocannabinoids, allowing the body’s natural levels of endocannabinoids to increase.

What’s more, CBD has been shown to affect several other receptor systems within the body, not just the CB1 and CB2 endocannabinoid receptors. CBD has shown to affect serotonin receptors, opioid receptors, so-called “vanilloid” receptors, PPAR receptors, and other systems within the body.

What About Other Cannabinoids?

What About Other Cannabinoids?

CBD is only one of over one hundred exogenous (produced outside the body) cannabinoids identified from the cannabis plant.

Today, you can find a lot of “full spectrum” CBD products on the market. These products don’t contain just CBD, but also contain traces of every cannabinoid found in the hemp plant.

So far, research in regards to how exogenous cannabinoids impact the ECS has been mostly limited to taking close looks at the two most famous exogenous cannabinoids: CBD and THC.

Yet there are plenty of unanswered questions regarding how these two cannabinoids interact with the ECS. As such, there is a lot of mystery regarding how the lesser-known cannabinoids interact with the body and the ECS. Some of these compounds may do very little or next to nothing, while others may one day prove to have important effects.

Anecdotally, many users of CBD products report a marked difference between taking CBD isolate products (where the only cannabinoid present is CBD itself) and taking full-spectrum CBD products (which contain a mixture of all the cannabinoids extracted from hemp.)

Some research has even suggested that cannabinoids act synergistically to complement one another. This theory, dubbed the “entourage effect”, puts forth the idea that the intricate blend of cannabinoids creates effects within the body that cannot be produced by anyone cannabinoid acting alone.

Keep an Eye on Endocannabinoid Research

Keep an Eye on Endocannabinoid Research

With the ECS only being first discovered in the 1990s, research into the possibilities and effects of the ECS is still in its infancy. 

What has been revealed is that the ECS is a complex and extremely important system within the body’s internal biochemistry. While perhaps this raises more questions than it answers, it is an encouraging sign that science has stumbled upon something quite profound.

In the coming years, we’re likely to see many more developments and discoveries regarding the ECS.

Now that you’ve been introduced to what the ECS is, we encourage you to keep an eye out for new research regarding the ECS, as this intriguing system is likely to unlock more of the body’s secrets in years to come.




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