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Endocannabinoid System 101

How is it that cannabis (or cannabis-derived compounds) has such a diverse and unique set of effects on the human body? The short answer to this question is that cannabis interacts with the human body through our endocannabinoid system. However, this is not a very helpful answer without understanding what it means. Lucky for you, unpacking the endocannabinoid system is the goal of this post.

Let’s start by breaking “endocannabinoid system” into parts.

  • Endo – a prefix meaning "within, inner, absorbing, or containing". In this context, the prefix “endo” designates that we are talking about naturally occurring molecules within our bodies.
  • Cannabinoid -the root word of this word is taken from cannabis. The suffix “oid” means "resembling'' or "like''. When we combine those parts we end up with a word that means “similar to, or resembling, cannabis”.
  • System – in this context, “system” refers to a collection the molecules in our body which interact with each other in order to respond to changes in the environment (internal and external).

When we put all the parts together, endocannabinoid system (ECS) refers to the set of molecules in our body which interact with the cannabis-like molecules in our body. The ECS plays roles in regulating a diverse range of bodily functions including:

  • Memory
  • Appetite
  • Energy balance and metabolism
  • Stress response
  • Immune system
  • Female reproduction
  • Pain
  • Thermoregulation
  • Sleep

We will focus on the specifics of how some of these systems operate and what is known about the effects of cannabis on those systems in future posts.

Now you may find it strange that a system in our body is named after cannabis but, surprisingly, the receptors of our ECS were first identified by scientists studying the effects of cannabis in 1988. It was not until four years later that scientist uncovered the naturally occurring compounds in our body that interact with the same receptors as some of the primary compounds in cannabis.

Future posts will go into more depth on the discovery of the receptors and everything which scientists have been able to find out about these receptors since their discovery. For now, we will keep it relatively simple. So far, there is strong evidence for two primary ECS receptors, named cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2). You can think of receptors as phone operators. They receive the message and relay it to the proper location. These receptors are present on different types of cells throughout the human body (not just in the brain). 

The ECS receptors play a role in that diverse range of functions by binding and responding to endocannabinoid signaling molecules. Again, we will dive deeper into the world of endocannabinoids in later posts. Today I will introduce the first two endocannabinoids to be discovered. While anandamide and 2-AG are the most well studied, new endocannabinoids continue to be discovered.

  • Anandamide – the first endocannabinoid to be discovered. The name “anandamide” is based on the Sanskrit word “ananda”, which means "joy, bliss, delight", and “amide” describes a chemical feature of the molecule. A couple fun facts about anandamide: (1) it can be found in chocolates cacao?, and (2) A Scottish woman with a rare genetic mutation causing elevated anandamide levels was reported to be immune to anxiety, unable to experience fear and insensitive to pain.
  • 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) – was the second endocannabinoid to be discovered. 2-AG is found in much higher levels in the central nervous system than anandamide. Milk from humans and cows is reported to contain 2-AG.

(Perhaps the presence of these compounds partially explain why hot chocolate makes us feel some warm, cozy, and comfortable.)

So far we have defined “endocannabinoid system”, highlighted some a the major roles it plays in the body, and introduced some of the interacting parts of the ECS (the receptors CB1 and CB2 – and the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG. A final term, or concept, that we would like to leave you with is “endocannabinoid tone”. What this essentially means is “the current state and levels of the different parts of your endocannabinoid system”.

People will have differences in the various aspects of their ECS due to genetic factors and lifestyle choices. All of these differences can be summarized and talked about as differences in endocannabinoid tone. Differences in peoples’ endocannabinoid tone is one reason that cannabis consumption affects users quite distinctly.

That brings us back to our opening question – how and why is it that cannabis affects the human body in such a variety of ways. I hope that I have brought some clarity to what is meant by the short answer of “cannabis interacts with humans through our endocannabinoid system”. Now that you have developed some of the basic vocabulary, I expect reading and hearing about the ECS will be a little less intimidating. If I have piqued your interest, drop by to learn more about cannabis, the ECS, and other related plant and health related topics.

Be well!