The Human Endocannabinoid System & Your Health

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid (EC) system is a unique biological system which earned its name from the cannabis sativa plant that led to its discovery. The system plays an integral role in your overall physical and psychological health. It is comprised of three components:

  • Endogenous cannabinoids
  • Cannabinoid receptors
  • Metabolic enzymes

Though the EC system may serve different functions in different tissues, the overall goal of the entire endocannabinoid system is to achieve homeostasis, the body’s ability to maintain and regulate a stable internal environment despite ever-changing external conditions.

What is a Cannabinoid?

Cannabinoids are natural chemical messengers that activate biochemical receptors to regulate and control various body functions such as temperature, cognition and mood. There are two types of cannabinoids: endogenous cannabinoids and exogenous cannabinoids.

Endogenous Cannabinoids

Endogenous cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids, are produced by cells in the human body. There are two major endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Anandamide comes from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss, and plays an important role in your mood and appetite among other functions. 2-AG is found abundantly in the central nervous system and plays a role in immune function, pain management and appetite. These cannabinoids function as neurotransmitters and are synthesized on demand, meaning that the body only produces them when needed.

Exogenous Cannabinoids

Exogenous cannabinoids, which are produced outside of the body, are also capable of binding to and activating cannabinoid receptors. Phytocannabinoid, a type of exogenous cannabinoid produced by plants like the cannabis plant, are a natural source of these chemical messengers. There are more than 100 identified cannabinoid receptors in the cannabis plant, each with different properties and effects on the body.

The most well-known phytocannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is the only cannabinoid which produces psychoactive effects, responsible for the “high” feeling experienced by marijuana smokers. Other cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant such as cannabidiol (CBD), cannabinol (CBN) and terpenes provide a litany of medicinal health benefits without the psychoactive results.

Synthetic cannabinoid, a second type of exogenous cannabinoid, is the active ingredient in products such as synthetic marijuana, Spice and K2. These products frequently produce adverse effects due to crude manufacturing processes, which is in contrast to their natural counterparts, endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids.

What are Cannabinoid Receptors?

In order for cannabinoids to positively influence the body, they require communication with cannabinoid receptors. There are two cannabinoid receptors within the human body: CB1 and CB2.

  • CB1 receptors are primarily found in the nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and connective tissue but can also be found in peripheral organs and tissues such as the endocrine gland and gastrointestinal tract.
  • CB2 receptors are predominately located in the immune and lymphatic systems but can also be found in other organs such as the eyes and pancreas.

Cannabinoids may communicate with one or both receptors. Other cannabinoid receptors are suspected, as there are medicinal effects of cannabinoids that cannot be tied back to one of these two receptors. Research into the endocannabinoid system is still relatively in its infancy, and more studies are needed to understand better the role the entire system plays in our health, as well as to identify other endocannabinoids and receptors which may exist within the body.

What Function Do Metabolic Enzymes Serve in the Endocannabinoid System?

The metabolic enzymes found within the endocannabinoid system quickly synthesize and degrade cannabinoids once they are used. The two main enzymes involved in this process are fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL). FAAH is responsible for breaking down anandamide and MAGL is responsible for breaking down 2-AG.

Why is the Endocannabinoid System Important?

The endocannabinoid system plays a key role in achieving homeostasis. Homeostasis provides your body an internal environment that allows cells and organs to function properly. If your internal environment is unstable, disease, obesity and body temperature concerns—like hypothermia or heatstroke— may follow, leading to dangerous health complications.

In addition to maintaining homeostasis in the body, the endocannabinoid system is also responsible for regulating several important physiological functions related to homeostasis and healthy growth. These functions include:

  • Sleep
  • Mood
  • Appetite
  • Temperature
  • Peripheral sensation including pain
  • Inflammation
  • Memory
  • Stress
  • Energy and metabolism
  • Cognitive function
  • Movement
  • Female reproduction
  • Bone mass
  • Neurodevelopment
  • Immune, digestive and cardiovascular function

Cannabinoids & Chronic Disease

For individuals experiencing certain chronic medical conditions or diseases, cannabinoids can impact the severity of symptoms according to preclinical studies and research. Cannabinoid-based treatments are on the rise to help patients experience symptomatic relief from:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, ulcerative colitis, myofascial pain syndrome and Crohn’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Epilepsy
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Glaucoma
  • Asthma
  • Cardiovascular disease

The Potential of the Human Endocannabinoid System

The human endocannabinoid system is unique and complex, and it is a system we are still just beginning to comprehend. Preclinical studies have indicated that by modulating endocannabinoid system activity, there is therapeutic potential in almost all disease states that affect humans.

With unmatched potential, focusing on the endocannabinoid system in humans could reap health benefits not previously experienced with other pharmacological therapies.