Intro to the Endocannabinoid System

When the human endocannabinoid system was discovered in the early 1990s, it gave scientific credence to what many cannabis enthusiasts had been saying for years: people and weed are made for each other, man.

Like all great pairings – peanut butter and chocolate, Virtue and Moir – there is a certain kind of magic that can happen when the cannabis plant’s naturally-occurring cannabinoids (the keys, if you will) activate the cell receptors of the human endocannabinoid system (the locks). And by magic, we mean science.

What are cannabinoids and endocannabinoids?

Cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are active compounds in the cannabis plant. We can call them exogenous cannabinoids, meaning they are formed outside the body. Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam discovered the first known cannabinoid, THC, in the 1960s.

More than 30 years later, Dr. Mechoulam and his teams discovered similar molecules existing naturally within the human body. Endocannabinoids are endogenous, or native, to the body, and are named after the cannabinoids that were found first.

More than 200 cannabinoids have been identified to-date, but so far we only know of two endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-AG. These naturally-occurring molecules are involved in a range of physiological processes affecting the immune system, nervous system and most organs.

What is the endocannabinoid system?

Endocannabinoids communicate with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a complex network of enzymes and cell receptors found in the central and peripheral nervous systems, gastrointestinal tract, and on immune system cells. Unlike other important systems we’ve known about for centuries, the first endocannabinoid receptors weren’t discovered until the 1980s, and there is still much to learn. But we do know is that the ECS is vast, intricate and important.

“The endocannabinoid system is the only endogenous system of chemical signals that is involved in everything,” says Vincenzo di Marzo, Canada Research Excellence Chair in the Microbiome-Endocannabinoidome Axis in Metabolic Health (Université Laval) and leading researcher with the National Research Council of Italy.

The ECS is involved in regulating a range of functions, including fertility, digestion, memory, learning, immune and inflammatory response, pain response and more. Because of its impact on multiple systems, it affects our overall health.

The endocannabinoid system and pain

“Endocannabinoids appear to be profoundly connected with the concept of homeostasis (maintaining physiological stability) and help to redress specific imbalances presented by disease or injury,” writes Michael Backe in Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Medical Marijuana. “Endocannabinoids’ role in pain signalling has led to the hypothesis that endocannabinoid levels may be responsible for the baseline of pain throughout the body which is why cannabinoid-based medicines may be useful in treating conditions such as fibromyalgia (a condition marked by heightened background pain levels, muscular pain and stiffness).”

To put it simply, when the body’s endocannabinoid levels or endocannabinoid system are out of whack, pain, inflammation and a variety of other symptoms can result. Cannabinoids from the cannabis plant interact with the same systems, working like supplements to potentially restore and improve balance – or disrupt it.

The future of endocannabinoid research

Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CED) is not an official diagnosis, but a working theory that may explain why cannabis appears to treat such a wide range of seemingly disparate conditions, all of which may be related to the complex and multi-systemic workings of the ECS.

Leading endocannabinoid researcher Ethan B. Russo posits that fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and migraines present “the greatest evidence for CED”, but also suggests a laundry list of conditions that could be affected by endocannabinoid deficiencies, including multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, diabetic neuropathy, PTSD, autism, anorexia and bulimia.

A recent paper co-authored by Dr. Di Marzo suggests that future studies on the ECS may “shed light on other applications now developing, including Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and as treatment for the emotional processing impairment presented in schizophrenia”.

Current and future studies on the ECS are happening alongside advances in other areas, including cannabinoid research, and our growing understanding of the microbiome – itself the source of many endocannabinoid receptors.

We’ll be watching them eagerly – stayed tuned to Hempster.co and join us as we learn more about what researchers call “our most complicated and most ubiquitous signalling system.

With files from Freedom Ahn.