In high school health class or biology, you might have learned about the major organ systems in the human body: circulatory, respiratory, etc etc. However, it is likely that you did not learn about an additional system that is perhaps “the most important physiological system involved in establishing and maintaining health.”
This system is called the endocannabinoid system. It was discovered about 25 years ago by scientists trying to understand how THC affects the body. What they discovered was a complex network of receptors in the brain that respond to cannabis.
We do not currently understand the full function of the endocannabinoid system, but are certain that it plays a crucial role in regulating our physiology, mood, and everyday experiences. For example, the system has been shown to be involved in regulating many physiological and cognitive processes, such as fertility, pregnancy, appetite, pain sensation, mood, and memory. The system is also implicated in mediating effects of exercise and has been shown to contribute to effects of exercise-induced euphoria (runners high) and motivation for reward.
Receptors, compounds, and neuromodulatory!? What the heck does all that mean?
Broadly speaking, the endocannabinoid system involves four components: cannabinoids, enzymes, receptors, and neurons.
- Cannabinoids are molecules which produce a electrochemical signal when they bind to a target protein. Endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids are produced within the body and plant naturally (endo-body, phyto-plant).
- Enzymes degrade and synthesize the endocannabinoids, breaking them down and incorporating them into the body.
- Receptors are located in the central and peripheral nervous systems(these are also where the binding sites and target proteins of the endocannabinoids are located).
- Lastly, neurons are specialized cells that receive, transmit, and process information through electrochemical signals known as neurotransmitters. These are connected to each other allowing information to flow through the body.
To reiterate, cannabinoids are molecules that trigger a specific process in the body when they attach to specific receptors of a neuron.
It is important to note that since 60% of the human body is composed of water and because endocannabinoids are hydrophobic they cannot travel very far in the body so their effects are localized (hence, this is why CBD creams can provide localized relief!).
So what are the cannabinoid molecules?
Cannabinoids are just one of a diverse class of chemical compounds that interact with the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. These modulate the release of neurotransmitters in the brain. They can be found naturally in the body and in plants.
In plants, they are concentrated within a viscous resin produced in structures known as glandular trichomes, which look like tiny hairs on the plant. More than 100 of these cannabinoid compounds have been identified in the marijuana plant and many others occur naturally in the human brain and body.
THC and CBD are the most extensively studied of those produced by the plant and have become household names. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the primary psychoactive component of the Cannabis plant and Cannabidiol (CBD) is non-psychotropic. You won’t get ‘high’ from CBD.
So what receptors do the cannabinoids interact with?
The two primary receptors that are triggered by cannabinoids are the CB1 and CB2. CB1 is mainly found in the brain and central nervous system, peripheral organs and tissues, and are the main molecular targets for anandamide and THC (two cannabinoid chemical compounds of the endocannabinoid system).
CB2 occurs most commonly in the spleen, tonsils, thymus, and immune cells. CB2 plays a role in virtually every type of human disease, as well as kidney function, bone and skin health, and pain-related illness.
While THC binds directly to CB1 and CB2 receptors, CBD does not have a strong binding affinity and thus affects the system indirectly, including activating other receptors, such as the serotonin and TRPV1 receptors, known to regulate mental health and brain function, and inflammation, respectively.
CBD has also been linked to the process of creating anandamide. Anandamide is a neurotransmitter known to play a role in pleasure and motivation. Many studies and clinical trials are currently underway to elucidate additional effects of the effect of endocannabinoid and CBD on the body and brain.