A little over a month ago, I wrote about the discovery of the endocannabinoid system – which is arguably one of the most important endogenous systems known to man. There is so much going on inside our bodies that we are only now starting to understand – and that is all thanks to curiosities raised about the marijuana plant.
Now that we’ve got a background on how the endocannabinoid system was found, I think it’s time to take a good look at how it works. With an understanding of the endocannabinoid system comes an understanding of exactly how and why marijuana affects us the way it does and why it can be therapeutic is so many different situations.
The Anatomy of the Endocannabinoid System
In most biological systems – such as the nervous system – our brain sends our body messages via chemicals called neurotransmitters, which are released from a neuron, called the presynaptic cell. They travel across a tiny gap called the synapsis and from there attach to specific receptors on a nearby neuron, called the postsynaptic cell.
This is how our body controls just about everything from how we think to what we do – this is the process that keeps my fingers moving across the keyboard as I type this. The reason it’s important to understand this is so you can understand why the endocannabinoid system eluded scientists for so long – it works in reverse.
Rather than passing along messages from the presynaptic cells, cannabinoids are created on-demand by the postsynaptic cell. The cannabinoid then travels in reverse, to the presynaptic cell, where it attaches to a CB2 or CB2 receptor.
Since cannabinoids are responsible for things such as sleep, metabolism and appetite, among other things, this is important to understand. Once the cannabinoids attach to the presynaptic cells they can control what happens when the next messages are sent out.
The CB receptors can be found throughout the entire body – CB1 receptors are generally found in the nervous system, connective tissues, gonads, glands and organs; CB2 receptors are most often found in the immune system and its associated structures – and in some tissues you will find both. There may be a third cannabinoid receptor that has still yet to be found.
Naturally, if our bodies are outfitted with a system specifically designed for cannabinoids, it’s unlikely that we don’t already produce some ourselves. The cannabinoids produced by our bodies are known as endogenous cannabinoids – or endocannabinoids. The most common endocannabinoids and most well understood are anandamide and 2-arachidonolyglycerol, or 2-AG.
The other naturally occurring cannabinoids are called phytocannabinoids, which are cannabinoids that come from plant matter. The cannabis sativa plant is known to have over 500 natural compounds – of which at least 85 have been identified as cannabinoids.
Of these cannabinoids, the most well-known are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC is the psychoactive compound that offers the “high” that is associated with marijuana use. CBD, on the other hand, is non-psychoactive and actually counteracts the effects of THC.
Other less understood cannabinoids occurring in the cannabis plant include CBN (Cannabinol) and CBG (Cannabigerol). CBN is created through a process called oxidization, when THC is exposed to the air, and it is mildly psychoactive. CBG is non-psychoactive and has been shown to reduce intraocular pressure – explaining why marijuana works so well for glaucoma patients.
There are also synthetic cannabinoids – created in part to help discover the endocannabinoid system and its capabilities. These synthetic cannabinoids were created to replicate THC and, as I mentioned in the last article, they are actually FDA approved for treatment of severe nausea and wasting syndrome. (Yet the naturally occurring cannabinoid remains illegal at a federal level…)
How the Endocannabinoid System is Responsible for Homeostasis
The effects of endocannabinoids are more local and much shorter lived than that of cannabinoids from cannabis, due to the fact that they are broken down quicker. All cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system itself are accepted to be the system behind regulating homeostasis.
Homeostasis, to keep it simple, is the body’s ability to maintain a stable internal environment, regardless of external changes. Basically, without the endocannabinoid system, our bodies would have no means of keeping all the other biological systems in check.
For example – tumor cells are shown to have more cannabinoid receptors – when certain cannabinoids attach to the receptors in a cancerous cell it then continues to cause the cell to consume itself – therefore promoting homeostasis by destruction of the cell.
Another great example of the endocannabinoid system at work would be at the site of an injury – cannabinoids would be decreasing the release of activators and sensitizers of the injured tissue which would stabilize the nerve to prevent an excessive response as well as calming immune cells; all of which aim to minimize pain and damage from the injury,
Alongside promoting homeostasis cannabinoids also play a large part in our social environment as well. Cannabinoids are responsible for behavior – as expressed in the way the psychoactive cannabinoid THC affects things such as humor and creativity. This poses the theory that the endocannabinoid system one direct link between body and mind and the doorway to understanding our consciousness.
How THC and CBD Reacts to the Endocannabinoid System to Provide Relief
Speaking of how THC affects the mind (and the body as well), the endocannabinoid system is the answer to that question. While scientists may not have a full understanding of the system at work, there has been years’ worth of research on how THC reacts within the body (remember, that lead to the discovery of endocannabinoids in the first place!).
When THC is introduced to the body it seeks out those cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. The THC aims to find the CB1 and CB2 receptors, and when it attaches to those receptors the effects vary depending on the potency of the plant being consumed.
CB1 receptors are the ones that control things such as sleep, appetite, mood and even the sensation of pain. When THC is introduced, these receptors alter the messages sent from presynaptic neuron to postsynaptic neuron – enhancing the effects. This is why insomniacs and rheumatoid arthritis patients can find relief through high-THC strains of marijuana.
The CB2 receptors are the ones that regulate the immune system, so when THC attaches it starts an anti-inflammatory response. It has also been shown to aid in the reduction of cancerous cells. This is likely why diseases such as Crohn’s Disease and HIV are successfully treated with marijuana.
The large number of THC cannabinoids attaching to the thousands of CB1 and CB2 receptors are altering the messages sent to our brains, therefore minimizing symptoms that make us uncomfortable and promoting homeostasis.
CBD works much in the same way as THC – it attaches to the CB1 and CB2 receptors, however the CBD cannabinoid seems to work towards healing and working as a natural anti-inflammatory. This is likely why it makes such a large impact on patients who are suffering from conditions such as epilepsy.
Alone these cannabinoids can work wonders in healing the sick, by allowing our body’s access to additional cannabinoids to promote homeostasis. If for some reason our body cannot produce the right amount of natural cannabinoids or other chemicals, introducing external phytocannabinoids can stimulate the receptors in the same way, promoting the same functions.
However, when we introduce whole plant cannabis, whether smoked or vaporized, the numerous cannabinoids that enter your system will all be working towards the common goal of internal balance – reducing pain, anxiety, depression, nausea and more.
Understanding the endocannabinoid system and how cannabis reacts to it can help anyone to use cannabis in a healthy way – whether it be to treat a chronic condition like R.A. or something treatable like cancer or even something as simple as a broken bone or a migraine.
The science proves it – our bodies are designed to use cannabinoids to maintain normal function and homeostasis – that alone should be enough to prove marijuana can work successfully as a medicine, don’t you think?
A quick note after having this issue being brought to my attention: It is still debated whether or not CBD actually hits the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the same way that THC does. However, there is evidence that they do have a minimal affinity for the receptors, which could be what allows the anti-inflammatory effects often associated with its use. It may even be that it is binding to a different part of the receptor than THC would, which could explain why the two seem to work best when paired together.