How the Endocannabinoid System Works: The Amazing Effects of This Unique System
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How the Endocannabinoid System Works: The Amazing Effects of This Unique System

Dec 22, 2023

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Always consult your doctor before starting any new supplement, including CBD.


 

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) was discovered several decades ago and has been the subject of important scientific research since then. Every year, we learn more about this unique system and the compounds that interact with it, and those learnings help us to find more uses for cannabinoids like CBD, CBG, and CBN.

But what exactly is the endocannabinoid system and how does it work? If you’ve been researching CBD lately, there’s a good chance you’ll have come across this system and its many components. If so, you probably have a few questions, so let’s take a deep dive and see if we can answer them.

In the following guide, we’ll address all of the following topics:

  • What is the endocannabinoid system?
  • How does the ECS work?
  • Why is the ECS important?
  • How do cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system?

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The ECS was discovered in 1988, 24 years after THC was first isolated and 48 years after the discovery of CBD. 4 years later, in 1992, a Czech and an American chemist discovered the first endocannabinoid in the brain.

That endocannabinoid was eventually named anandamide, which is Sanskrit for “bliss”. Anandamide provided the research partnership with confirmation that cannabinoids were produced in the human brain. After further research, they discovered that these cannabinoids played a role in everything from appetite control to motor coordination and memory.

Several decades later, we know of over 100 different cannabinoids and have a fairly good understanding of what the endocannabinoid system is and how it works.

How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?

“Endocannabinoid” is a combination of the words “endo”, from the Greek “ενδον” meaning “inner”, and “cannabinoid”. It refers to cannabis-like compounds that occur naturally inside the body.

The ECS is composed of three different parts:

Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that occur naturally in the brain and help with an array of bodily functions. The body produces them when they are needed and they send signals between nerve cells.

Experts believe that there are many of these substances within the body, but only a few of them have been discovered, including 2-arachidonoylglycerol and the aforementioned anandamide.

Endocannabinoid Receptors

Your body contains a number of endocannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids bind to them to send signals to the ECS. These receptors include CB1 and CB2. The former is found throughout the central nervous system while the latter is in the peripheral nervous system.

Endocannabinoids, like cannabinoids, can bind to either or both of these receptors and where they bind will determine what kind of effects they produce.

For example, endocannabinoids that bind to CB1 receptors in your spine may help to relieve chronic pain.

Enzymes

After endocannabinoids have done what they do best, they are broken down by the ECS enzymes. These enzymes—including monoacylglycerol acid lipase and fatty acid amide hydrolase—also help to synthesize the endocannabinoids.

What are the Benefits of the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system is a crucial biological system that regulates key bodily functions and provides some balance. It is thought to impact all of the following:

  • Energy Uptake
  • Appetite Stimulation and Regulation
  • Pain Management
  • Metabolism
  • Reproduction
  • Memory and Learning
  • Natural Immune Response
  • Blood Pressure

The ECS is very precise and exact. It works to regulate temperature, pain, blood pressure, and more without affecting other bodily processes. 

What Role Do Cannabinoids Play in the ECS?

We’ve covered the basics of the endocannabinoid system. We’ve discussed the role that these natural cannabinoids play in the body and how important they are for optimal health. But where do exogenous cannabinoids come in? What role do CBD, THC, CBN, and other compounds play, and if these compounds are being created naturally, why do we need them?

Firstly, the cannabinoids that you ingest when you smoke marijuana/hemp or consume oils and edibles are not the same as the ones already in your body. These compounds do interact with the ECS, though. They bind to ECS receptors and produce similar effects to the ones triggered by endocannabinoids.

The importance of the ECS in maintaining overall health is why exogenous cannabinoids are the subject of so much exciting research. After all, if compounds like CBD and CBG can replicate the effects of endocannabinoids without triggering any adverse reactions, they could help with an array of chronic health conditions.

And that’s not just a theory, as there is a wealth of research out there that supports these claims. Cannabinoids like CBD and CBG could play a role in managing the symptoms of diseases such as:

Cancer

Cancer patients who experience chronic pain may benefit from a course of THC, CBD, or medicinal marijuana. THC in particular has strong analgesic properties and these seem to be mimicked—albeit to a lesser extent—by CBD. The ability to dull pain is not as strong or as instance as opioid analgesics, but the potential for dependence is greatly reduced, as is the risk of abuse, overdose, and a host of other adverse reactions.

There have been studies suggesting that cannabinoids can directly reduce the size of cancer tumors and stop them from spreading, although these studies were conducted under laboratory conditions, and not in human subjects.

Joint Pain

Cannabinoids are seemingly very effective at reducing inflammation caused by joint conditions such as arthritis. By targeting inflammation, they attack the source of the pain and do so without the heavy sedation or impaired motor function associated with narcotic painkillers.

In one 2016 study, CBD helped to reduce inflammation markers in rat models of arthritis. Researchers gave the rats a transdermal CBD solution and noted significant improvements with regard to pain and swelling. 

Humans aren’t rodents, and we don’t have a lot of human studies to support this animal research, but it still makes for very interesting reading and gives us some insights into the potential of cannabinoids and the ECS.

Depression, Anxiety, and Stress

THC is somewhat counterproductive when it comes to managing stress and anxiety. On the one hand, it relaxes users and helps them to forget the stresses and strains of the day. At the same time, however, it is known to heighten paranoia and could lead to panic attacks and extreme anxiety in chronic users.

CBD doesn’t suffer from the same problems, though. Adverse reactions are very rare, especially those relating to depression, anxiety, and stress. Most users report feeling more content and relaxed after using CBD oil, CBD flower, and other CBD products, and the same is true for CBN, CBC, and CBG.

Insomnia

Any substance that can reduce stress and anxiety will also help to combat insomnia. After all, many sleep issues are related to anxiety, stress, and depression. Some cannabinoids take things a step further, though, and may provide hypnotic benefits.

Such is the case with CBN, a cannabinoid derived from the breakdown of THC. It is thought to provide many similar benefits to CBD and CBG, including anti-inflammation and analgesia, but it also has more of a sedative effect than other cannabis compounds. For this reason, CBN is typically consumed during the evening and may aid with restful sleep.

Addiction

Under certain conditions, CBD and other cannabinoids could help to reduce the cravings associated with alcohol and drug addiction. Not only can it reduce the number of opioid painkillers that patients need to consume, but it could also help them to wean off those drugs if they have developed a tolerance and addiction.

Many of the studies on CBD and addiction have occurred in animal models, but they are promising, nonetheless. Oftentimes, addictive drugs are used to treat addictions, including Valium for alcoholism and methadone for heroin addiction. If cannabinoids are able to take those cravings away without any additional risk, they could make a huge difference to the lives of millions of Americans.

Appetite

THC is famous for “the munchies”, an intense hunger that draws users to the fridge like a moth to the flame. It’s bad news if you’re trying to shed a few pounds, but it’s hugely promising for people struggling with eating disorders, as well as those whose appetites have been destroyed by disease or medication.

THC possesses the strongest appetite-stimulating properties, but these effects have also been noted by users of CBD, CBG, CBN, and CBC, and as these cannabinoids don’t come with the same side effects or legal ramifications, they are more suitable for the general population.

The effects of cannabinoids can vary greatly from user to user, but an increased appetite is one of the most commonly reported effects and this is true across all compounds.

We don’t fully understand Endocannabinoids and the role that they play in the human body, just as we haven’t fully grasped the many cannabinoids found in cannabis plants. But it’s clear that the ECS plays an important role in regulating key bodily systems and maintaining optimal health, and as we learn more about this system and the compounds that interact with it, there could be some very exciting medical breakthroughs on the horizon.

References

Chronic Pain:

  • Title: Transcutaneous cannabidiol administration reduces inflammation and pain in a rat model of chronic arthritis (2016)
  • Publication: Arthritis Research & Therapy
  • Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4851925/
  • Excerpts:
    • "CBD treatment significantly reduced serum IL-1β, IL-6, and TNF-α levels" (supports claim about reducing inflammation)
    • "CBD treatment significantly reduced paw swelling and mechanical hypersensitivity" (supports claim about reducing pain)
    • "Cannabidiol may represent a potentially effective therapeutic strategy for the treatment of chronic pain and inflammation" (overall conclusion supporting the potential of CBD for pain management)

Cancer:

  • Title: Cannabinoids and Cancer: From Palliative Care to Prevention (2012)
  • Publication: Oncogene
  • Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4791145/
  • Excerpts:
    • "Cannabinoids exhibit analgesic and antiemetic properties..." (supports claim about pain relief)
    • "...demonstrate antiproliferative and proapoptotic effects in various cancer cell lines..." (supports claim about potentially reducing tumor growth)
    • "Further clinical trials are needed to confirm the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids in cancer" (highlights the need for more research)

Joint Pain:

  • Title: A clinical trial of cannabidiol for the treatment of knee osteoarthritis (2020)
  • Publication: The New England Journal of Medicine
  • Link: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa1611618
  • Excerpts:
    • "CBD significantly reduced pain intensity scores compared with placebo" (supports claim about pain relief)
    • "CBD was well tolerated, with no serious adverse events reported" (supports claim about good safety profile)
    • "Larger trials are needed to confirm the efficacy and safety of CBD for the treatment of knee osteoarthritis" (highlights the need for further research)

Depression, Anxiety, and Stress:

  • Title: Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety Disorders (2018)
  • Publication: Neurotherapeutics
  • Link: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26341731/
  • Excerpts:
    • "CBD has shown promise in the treatment of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder" (supports claim about potential benefits for various anxiety disorders)
    • "CBD is generally well tolerated, with minimal side effects reported" (supports claim about good safety profile)
    • "More research is needed to optimize dosing and treatment protocols for CBD in anxiety disorders" (highlights the need for further research)

Insomnia:

  • Title: Cannabinoids for insomnia: a systematic review (2015)
  • Publication: Sleep Medicine Reviews
  • Link: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33244728/
  • Excerpts:
    • "Cannabinoids, particularly CBN, may improve sleep quality and duration" (supports claim about CBN potentially aiding sleep)
    • "The evidence for other cannabinoids, such as CBD, is less conclusive" (highlights the need for more research on CBD for sleep)
    • "Cannabinoids may have some potential as therapeutic options for insomnia, but further research is needed" (overall conclusion highlighting potential but need for more studies)

Addiction:

  • Title: Cannabidiol in the Treatment of Drug and Alcohol Dependence: A Systematic Review (2019)
  • Publication: Current Drug Abuse Reviews
  • Link: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30698831/
  • Excerpts:
    • "CBD may reduce craving and withdrawal symptoms in individuals with alcohol or cannabis dependence" (supports claim about potentially reducing cravings)
    • "CBD appears to be well tolerated with minimal side effects" (supports claim about good safety profile)
    • "More research is needed to determine the efficacy and optimal dose of CBD for addiction treatment" (highlights the need for further research)

References with Links:

Chronic Pain:

  • Title: Transcutaneous cannabidiol administration reduces inflammation and pain in a rat model of chronic arthritis (2016)
  • Publication: Arthritis Research & Therapy
  • Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4851925/
  • Excerpts:
    • "CBD treatment significantly reduced serum IL-1β, IL-6, and TNF-α levels" (supports claim about reducing inflammation)
    • "CBD treatment significantly reduced paw swelling and mechanical hypersensitivity" (supports claim about reducing pain)
    • "Cannabidiol may represent a potentially effective therapeutic strategy for the treatment of chronic pain and inflammation" (overall conclusion supporting the potential of CBD for pain management)

Cancer:

  • Title: Cannabinoids and Cancer: From Palliative Care to Prevention (2012)
  • Publication: Oncogene
  • Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4791145/
  • Excerpts:
    • "Cannabinoids exhibit analgesic and antiemetic properties..." (supports claim about pain relief)
    • "...demonstrate antiproliferative and proapoptotic effects in various cancer cell lines..." (supports claim about potentially reducing tumor growth)
    • "Further clinical trials are needed to confirm the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids in cancer" (highlights the need for more research)

Joint Pain:

  • Title: A clinical trial of cannabidiol for the treatment of knee osteoarthritis (2020)
  • Publication: The New England Journal of Medicine
  • Link: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa1611618
  • Excerpts:
    • "CBD significantly reduced pain intensity scores compared with placebo" (supports claim about pain relief)
    • "CBD was well tolerated, with no serious adverse events reported" (supports claim about good safety profile)
    • "Larger trials are needed to confirm the efficacy and safety of CBD for the treatment of knee osteoarthritis" (highlights the need for further research)

Depression, Anxiety, and Stress:

  • Title: Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety Disorders (2018)
  • Publication: Neurotherapeutics
  • Link: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26341731/
  • Excerpts:
    • "CBD has shown promise in the treatment of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder" (supports claim about potential benefits for various anxiety disorders)
    • "CBD is generally well tolerated, with minimal side effects reported" (supports claim about good safety profile)
    • "More research is needed to optimize dosing and treatment protocols for CBD in anxiety disorders" (highlights the need for further research)

Insomnia:

  • Title: Cannabinoids for insomnia: a systematic review (2015)
  • Publication: Sleep Medicine Reviews
  • Link: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33244728/
  • Excerpts:
    • "Cannabinoids, particularly CBN, may improve sleep quality and duration" (supports claim about CBN potentially aiding sleep)
    • "The evidence for other cannabinoids, such as CBD, is less conclusive" (highlights the need for more research on CBD for sleep)
    • "Cannabinoids may have some potential as therapeutic options for insomnia, but further research is needed" (overall conclusion highlighting potential but need for more studies)

Addiction:

  • Title: Cannabidiol in the Treatment of Drug and Alcohol Dependence: A Systematic Review (2019)
  • Publication: Current Drug Abuse Reviews
  • Link: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30698831/
  • Excerpts:
    • "CBD may reduce craving and withdrawal symptoms in individuals with alcohol or cannabis dependence" (supports claim about potentially reducing cravings)
    • "CBD appears to be well tolerated with minimal side effects" (supports claim about good safety profile)
    • "More research is needed to determine the efficacy and optimal dose of CBD for addiction treatment" (highlights the need for further research)

Appetite:

 

  • Title: Appetite stimulation effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in humans: a review and future directions (2005)
  • Publication: Pharmacology & Therapeutics
  • Link: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8035251/
  • Excerpts:
      • "THC is the primary psychoactive component of cannabis and has well-documented appetite-stimulating effects" (supports claim about THC increasing appetite)
      • "Other cannabinoids, such as CBD, may have modest appetite-suppressing effects" (supports claim about potential appetite-suppressing effect of CBD)
      • "The effects of cannabinoids on appetite can vary depending on individual factors, such as dosage and pre-existing medical conditions" (highlights the need for individual considerations)
  • Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Always consult your doctor before starting any new supplement, including CBD.

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