The Endocannabinoid System: What It Is and How It Works

The Endocannabinoid System: What It Is and How It Works

To say that the human body is a wonder would be an understatement. Even after centuries of studying its anatomy and physiology, experts continue to make new discoveries about the human body, its different systems, and the roles they play in health, wellness, and battling certain medical conditions.

Neurotransmitters are a key component of the body’s communication system, transmitting signals between nerve cells and regulating various bodily functions. While over 40 neurotransmitters have been identified, recent research has uncovered a new system in the body known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The ECS is a complex cell-signalling system that plays a crucial role in regulating a range of physiological processes, including appetite, pain sensation, mood, and immune function.

What is the endocannabinoid system?

Discovered in the 1990s, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) was identified by researchers studying a well-known cannabinoid. It was later defined by the Harvard Medical School as “a vast network of chemical signals and cellular receptors that are densely packed throughout our brains and bodies.”

This cell signalling network was first isolated in the brain and it has been heavily studied since then for experts to learn how it plays a role in the body’s functions.

Endocannabinoids are naturally produced by the body, and it’s named from “endo” which means “within” to refer to their natural composition in the body. It’s also named after cannabinoids, a substance present in C. sativa plants that has some similar components to endocannabinoids.

How does the endocannabinoid system work?

According to research, cannabinoid receptors in the brain also called CB1 receptors outnumber many other types of receptors, which means that they also play a significant role in key bodily functions.

The Harvard Medical School explains this: “They act like traffic cops to control the levels and activity of most of the other neurotransmitters. This is how they regulate things: by immediate feedback, turning up or down the activity of whichever system needs to be adjusted, whether that is hunger, temperature or alertness.”

Endocannabinoids are the molecules that stimulate CB1 receptors to trigger these actions.

CB2 receptors have also been discovered in the immune tissues of the body and they’re mostly responsible for controlling contractions and pain in a number of inflammatory bowel conditions as well as intestinal inflammation.

Both these receptors are effective in regulating different bodily functions. The only difference between CB1 and CB2 receptors is that the latter doesn’t give patients the high that CB1 receptors have, which is an undesirable side effect.

How are endocannabinoids produced in the body?

Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring in the body, and they are found in various cells, tissues and organs. But while they are naturally produced by the body, they only become active once they bind with a cannabinoid receptor.

Studies are still conducted on how this binding process happens exactly, but some experts believe that it occurs as the body’s natural response when a system is out of balance. The binding between endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors is done to help address these problems and promote better health.

One of the biggest wonders of the endocannabinoid system is its accuracy and precision in correcting any imbalances within the body. For instance, if the body’s temperature increases, the ECS can trigger responses to regulate it back to normal without affecting any other processes within the body.

But what happens to the cannabinoids once the problem is corrected? Certain enzymes break them down to prevent the cannabinoids from overcorrecting and creating another imbalance.

According to experts, ECS is proven to play a role in regulating a wide range of bodily processes and functions including appetite, mood, sleep, reproduction and memory.

What are the different uses of the endocannabinoid system?

Medical experts and researchers still don’t fully understand the exact role of the endocannabinoid system in the body, but they’re certain that its function is vast. Most research studies that have been conducted revealed that the ECS plays a significant role in processes and functions that are geared towards promoting homeostasis in the body.

Homeostasis is the process of maintaining balance and stability within the body’s systems to promote proper function. For instance, the body strives to maintain balance in blood pressure, blood sugar and temperature. Any imbalance in these ranges will break homeostasis and affect the body’s function leading to certain signs and symptoms.

According to studies, the ECS may play a role in regulating functions such as sleep, appetite, pain, mood, inflammation, immune response, learning and memory, fertility and metabolism. More studies are being conducted to discover how the ECS can be used for therapeutic purposes.

Cannabinoids, on the other hand, are known to help in treating a wide range of medical conditions such as sleep disturbances, nausea and vomiting related to the effects of chemotherapy, chronic pain and muscle tightness related to multiple sclerosis.

The role of ECS in memory and learning

One of the most significant roles that the ECS plays is in memory and learning. This has been proven by different research studies and the obvious analysis that recreational forms of cannabinoids cause a temporary disruption in someone’s short-term memory. But if the patient stops using the substance, that memory also returns to normal.

In his book “The Botany of Desire,” bestselling author Michael Pollan talked about this temporary disruption in one’s memory as being beneficial because “the act of forgetting plays a valuable role in the ability of our brains to function without being overloaded with data from our senses that we are continually bombarded with.”

This is related to the function of ECS since forgetting allows for an opportunity to help treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) where a patient suffers from intrusive memories that keep bombarding him without wanting to. This can lead to a wide range of symptoms that could be potentially dangerous if not treated right away.

The role of ECS in hunger

Obesity is a common problem among many people worldwide, and this could lead to other medical conditions if not treated promptly. This discovery was made because of a drug called rimonabant, which was designed to block the CB1 receptor with the goal of suppressing hunger.

This was after the belief that when you use cannabinoids to block the CB1 receptor, it could result in weight loss. Rimonabant was successful as a weight loss medication, but it was pulled out from the market because many people taking the medication were becoming suicidal. This was due to the cannabinoid also affecting mood.

But medical experts continue to study the role of ECS in hunger ad weight loss to hopefully develop a medication in the future that has the same effects but without disrupting mood and other bodily functions to prevent any harmful side effects.

Can a patient be deficient in endocannabinoids?

Some medical experts proposed a theory called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD), which means that if someone has low endocannabinoid levels in the body, it can lead to the development of different medical conditions.

A study that was published in 2016 backed by more than 10 years of research suggested that this theory may explain how some patients suddenly develop conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and migraine.

In most cases, these medical conditions don’t have a specific or determined underlying cause and they can be resistant to treatment. These conditions may also occur together in one person, which makes the situation more complicated.

With further studies, experts hope to correlate the role of the ECS in these conditions in terms of being endocannabinoid deficient, so that drugs can be developed to boost the production of endocannabinoids in the body and prevent or treat these medical conditions before they get worse.

Medical experts continue to conduct studies, research and tests that could lead to the development of new drugs that are more effective in addressing not only the symptoms but also the root cause of different medical conditions, especially those related to disruption in the function of endocannabinoids in the body.

The bottom line

There is so much potential in the roles of the endocannabinoid system in helping to regulate many of the body’s functions to prevent a wide range of medical conditions. Although early studies were focused on understanding an illegal drug, it has led to a broader exploration of what could be one of the most important neurotransmitters in the body.

According to the Harvard Medical School, the endocannabinoid system is “an astoundingly intricate and far-reaching system by which our bodies learn, feel motivated and keep themselves in balance.”

The good news is; the medical world is now at the point where ECS is being studied enough that the development of new medications could change the medical world significantly and most importantly, give patients better outcomes with their treatments.

Medical conditions that have no specific underlying causes have been affecting millions of people from around the world, and the discovery of the ECS’ role in the body could lower that statistic and offer a better quality of life to patients who have been suffering from the cruellest diseases that the medical world has ever encountered over the last few years.