In nearly every health-related topic that we write about here on WayofLeaf, we usually end up going into some sort of discussion about the endocannabinoid system, or ECS. After all, it is borderline impossible to try and explain how cannabis offers relief for a particular medical condition, without discussing the ECS at least in part, especially when it comes to explanations about CBD (cannabidiol).
However, we typically only mention the system in passing and don’t go into a great deal of detail about it. That’s why we thought it would be relevant to dedicate an entire article to talking about this phenomenal network of compounds and receptors, which has been described as a “central component of the health and healing of every human, and almost every animal.”
As a disclaimer, though, we will go ahead and say that the ECS is far from being fully understood or fully mapped.
In fact, having only been discovered in the 1990’s, there is still a lot that scientists and physicians need to learn about it in order to have a more complete understanding of how cannabis works in the body, and more importantly, how we might be able to manipulate it to effectively treat almost any medical condition.
First Things First: Do NOT Let People Tell You There Is A Lack of Scientific Backing For Marijuana
Here’s one of the most annoying (yet ultimately go-to) arguments that marijuana opponents pull out when a discussion pops up over whether or not weed is medically viable: They’ll say something along the lines of, “yeah yeah you can say all you want about how effective weed is, but until there’s scientific evidence, you don’t have a point.”
Well, here’s the thing: over the last 20 years and as of 2015 (this was the last time a detailed account of the number of marijuana studies was taken), there had been no less than 20,991 published scientific articles containing the keyword cannabinoid. Since then, there have undoubtedly been hundreds (if not thousands) more studies completed, peer-reviewed, and published.
So the next time you’re talking/debating with someone about the endocannabinoid system or cannabis in general, don’t let them tell you that there’s no scientific evidence on the subject – because that’s simply not true.
To understand the basic properties and functions of the endocannabinoid system, we first have to understand what a cannabinoid is.
Basically, cannabinoids are the active chemical compounds in marijuana, which includes all plants classified under the genus Cannabis (i.e. Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa, and Cannabis ruderalis, which is the industrial hemp plant).
There have actually been over 80 distinct cannabinoids identified across all species of cannabis, but it appears that far and away the two most important ones in terms of the plant’s effects on the human body are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). Other natural cannabinoids found in marijuana include CBG, CBC, THCA, and THCV, just to name a few.
In any regard, it is these active cannabinoids that are responsible for the profound and far-reaching effects on the human body’s endocannabinoid system, and ultimately, on the range of therapy and relief that it can provide for so many medical conditions.
What Is the Endocannabinoid System?
Believe it or not, just like the marijuana plant, humans actually have naturally occurring cannabinoids as well, which are called endocannabinoids (the cannabinoids that occur in marijuana plants are called phytocannabinoids).
While there are likely many more that have yet to be discovered, it appears that the two primary endocannabinoids in the human body are anandamide and 2-AG (2-arachidonoylglycerol). It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination, but you might consider these two molecules to be the human versions of THC and CBD.
Also, it’s important to understand that these compounds are produced entirely naturally by the human body – each and every one of us has them, regardless of whether we’ve ever smoked weed before or not.
In fact, it’s believed that endocannabinoids exist in nearly every living organism on earth, from dogs and dolphins to sea squirts and nematodes.
In terms of function, endocannabinoids work by interacting with their corresponding receptors, which are aptly named endocannabinoid receptors. It appears that by far the most important of these internal receptors are CB1 and CB2, with CB1 primarily influencing activity on the brain and CB2 primarily influencing immune system activity and interactions with body tissues and organ systems.
Given their presence across nearly every cell and tissue type in the human body, you might imagine that endocannabinoids (and their corresponding receptors) have influential control over every aspect of both the body and mind, which is a truly amazing concept to consider in terms of the potential health benefits of cannabis.
In fact, the endocannabinoid system (which includes the complete network of cannabinoids and receptors in the body) is so prevalent throughout the human body that it has been described as a “bridge between body and mind” that is potentially “the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”
Among (many) other locations, endocannabinoids have been found in abundance throughout the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells, and their activity has been documented to regulate such things as cell-to-cell communication, neurogenesis (new cell production), and even the promotion of apoptosis, which is the death of malignant cancer cells and other non-productive cells through “programmed cellular suicide.”
How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?
As we mentioned, the ECS functions through the interaction of naturally-occurring compounds (like 2-AG and anandamide) and their receptors. However, this is an extremely basic description – the actual physiological pathways of the various cell-to-cell networks are likely to be highly complex, and much more research is certainly needed in order to even come close to understanding the full capacity of this very involved system.
What’s intriguing, however, is the fact that endocannabinoids can accomplish such a wide range of bodily tasks while still maintaining the singular objective of homeostasis.
In other words, even though the endocannabinoid system performs dozens and dozens of different tasks inside the body, it ultimately has one singular goal: to make sure that every bodily system is functioning healthily, efficiently, and in tune with other systems.
One of the best examples of an ECS function in the body is how it works to heal tissue after an injury. When a specific site becomes damaged (i.e. injured), for instance, anandamide and 2-AG (remember these are the body’s main endocannabinoids) are known to decrease the release of sensitizers from the site of injury, which thereby prevents excessive nerve cell firing (i.e. minimizes pain) and also prevents immune cells from releasing inflammation-inducing substances. In this particular example, one can see how the ECS influences three entirely separate pathways on three different cell types in order to accomplish the single objective of minimizing pain and repairing the damaged tissue.
Likewise, the ECS has similarly profound impacts on the brain, nervous system, and our general psychological and emotional well-being. For instance, it’s known that endocannabinoid pathways can directly influence an individual’s response to external stimuli, which has potentially massive implications in terms of being able to alter human behavioral responses.
More clearly put, the ECS and its network of chemical pathways are believed to be able to directly manipulate (and reverse) the neurological actions that lead to mental disorders like anxiety, depression, and even psychosis.
Also, by influencing the production of new cells in the central nervous system, it has been suggested that cannabinoids may be able to directly mediate an individual’s open-mindedness, as well as their capacity to re-format patterns of thought and behavior, which is a crucial aspect of being able to adapt to new situations while maintaining a healthy state of mind.
All in all, given the ECS’s seemingly all-encompassing influence over cell-to-cell communication, cell birth, and even cell death, it truly does appear that the system is a veritable mind-to-body bridge with the potential to treat any range of health disorders and diseases, whether they be mental or physical.
How Does Marijuana Work with the Endocannabinoid System?
So you might be wondering, “if every human being has their own endocannabinoid system, then why do we even need cannabis?”
Well, consider this: what do you suppose happens when there’s a deficiency of endocannabinoids, and/or the ECS is not functioning properly in the body? If you guessed that any number of things can go wrong (either physically or psychologically), then you’re exactly right. And this is precisely why marijuana – or cannabis in general – is believed to be able to provide relief from a seemingly endless range of medical conditions.
If endocannabinoids like 2-AG and anandamide are responsible for maintaining health and homeostasis on every single cellular level, for instance, then it makes perfect sense that marijuana (with its nearly identically-functioning THC and CBD molecules) can act as a miracle medicine in the event of an ECS deficiency.
Also, on a bit of a side note, this is why the popularity of CBD has taken off like a bottle rocket in recent years. It’s, of course, no secret that in addition to its health benefits, marijuana also provides a substantial mind-altering high, which is undesirable for a large population of people.
CBD on the other hand (which remember is the second-most abundant cannabinoid in marijuana), does not produce any intoxicating effects. It essentially provides many of the health and therapeutic benefits of cannabis, just without the high.[To learn more about CBD and its therapeutic effects, check out this article].
What Is the Endocannabinoid System: Final Thoughts
Well, hopefully, your questions (or at least a portion of them) on what the endocannabinoid system have finally been answered. In short, it is essentially the body’s own “naturally-occurring marijuana system” – able to influence any range of mind/body functions in order to promote health and homeostasis on a complete, whole-body level.
No matter what it is that you might be suffering from – whether it be a psychological condition such as insomnia or anxiety or a physical condition like pain, inflammation, or diabetes, cannabis is likely able to provide safe, effective, and 100% natural relief.
*[Much of the information in this article was taken from Dr. Dustin Sulak’s article on the ECS for NORML, which is the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws].