What is the Role of the Endocannabinoid System?

What is the Endocannabinoid System, and what does it do?

The endogenous cannabinoid system (endocannabinoid system, ECS) is named after the plant that led to its discovery, cannabis. Researchers believe that it is an important physiologic system that is involved in establishing and maintain health. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found all throughout the human body. They are located in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and even immune cells. Within each tissue, the cannabinoid system different tasks but the goal remains the same, achieve homeostasis.

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) was discovered in the 1990s by researchers. Experts are still discovering all that is encompassed in the ECS. So far, they are sure that it plays a role in regulating many functions in the body including sleep, mood, appetite, memory, and reproduction/fertility. In case you aren't aware, the endocannabinoid system is active even if you aren't using cannabis.

The ECS is composed of three core components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.

Endocannabinoids, which are also commonly referred to as endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules that are made for your body by your body. They are similar to cannabinoids, except that they are produced by your body. So far, experts have identified two endocannabinoids which are:

  •  Anandamide (AEA)
  • 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)

As mentioned previously, endocannabinoid receptors are found all throughout your body. Endocannabinoids bind to the receptors which then work to signal that the ECS needs to take an action. The two main endocannabinoid receptors are CB!, which are mostly found in the central nervous system, and CB2 which are generally found in the peripheral nervous system. Endocannabinoids can (and do) bind to either receptor, the effects of the binding differ depending on where the receptor is located within the body.

Enzymes are responsible for the duty of breaking down endocannabinoids once they have completed their intended function. The two main enzymes that are responsible for this job are fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down AEA and monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which breaks down 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG).

How Does the ECS Affect How Our Body Feels?

As discussed above, the role of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain homeostasis within our body. This fundamental biological concept helps our bodies to perform and feel their best. The biological systems found within our bodies (for example the cardiovascular system and digestive system) must regulate themselves in order to keep conditions in an ideal middle range, allowing our body to feel and work properly.

A simple example to remember how homeostasis works is the concept of our heat and sweat. When it's hot outside, our bodies produce sweat in an attempt to cool down. This is an automatic response of our muscles working to generate more heat, resulting in sweat. 

The ECS is involved in multiple physiological processes that affect different responses such as:

  • Appetite
  • Digestion
  • Immune function
  • Inflammation, including neuroinflammation
  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • Reproduction/fertility
  • Motor control
  • Temperature regulation
  • Memory
  • Pain
  • Pleasure/reward

In addition to regulating our internal homeostasis, cannabinoids are believed to influence a person's relationship with their external environment as well. The administration of cannabinoids alter one's human behavior, oftentimes encouraging sharing, humor, and creativity. Cannabinoids can also affect a person's ability to remain open-minded and move beyond limiting patterns of behavior. Many researchers believe that this change in old patterns can help to promote healthy habits.

The Entourage Effect

If you chose to smoke or vaporize cannabis, you should know that your body consumes hundreds of botanical compounds. Each one of those compounds arrives and provides unique benefits and their behavior may change when combined with other compounds. This is the entourage effect.

The entourage effect happens when CBD is ingested with other compounds from the cannabis plant. The belief is that by using all of the hemp plant, rather certain parts in isolation, the health and therapeutic benefits of the cannabinoids are boosted. CBD effects are increased why working with other compounds, like terpenes.

This concept can be compared to when your mood or behavior changes in a social environment. How you behave at a party is much different than how you would behave if you were one-on-one with a close friend or partner. Your mood, personality, and behavior shift depending on who is in the room.

What are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are the numerous compounds found within the cannabis plant. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a cannabinoid.

Cannabinoids occur naturally, but also can be produced synthetically. A cannabinoid can be explained as, "any chemical compound that has a direct impact on the endocannabinoid system, a neurotransmission network within all mammals." This network simply means cannabinoids help to pass messages between the body and the bain. Additionally, they help to send the right signals to the brain to regulate various systems within the body.

What are Terpenes?

Terpenes are the chemicals in plants that give them a certain smell or taste. You'd be surprised how often you come in contact with terpenes. Some that you may be familiar with are:

  • Limonene—which is found in citrus fruit peel
  • Linalool—the main component of lavender
  • Myrcene—which is found in mangos
  • Pinene—which provides the familiar scent of pine
  • Eucalyptol—which is the therapeutic scent of eucalyptus

These terpenes are responsible for the sharp smell that is associated with peeling an orange, or the nostalgic scent of pine trees at Christmas time. All of the terpenes listed above are all found in the cannabis plant, alongside over 100 other compounds.

In combination with CBD oil, these terpenes can have synergistic effects. Some of the known beneficial effects include:

  • Limonene—lifts mood
  • Pinene—heightens alertness
  • Eucalyptol—works as anti-bacterial
  • Nerolidol—can enhance the effects of other compounds

Each of the listed cannabis terpenes have many potential benefits on their own. However, the entourage effect happens when they are used together, and in partnership with cannabinoids such as CBD. Research continues on the efficacy of terpenes, but the entourage effect has been around for many years.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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