It’s living inside us all, humans and animals. From vertebrates to invertebrates, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a part of everyone. But what exactly does it do in our bodies, and how does it affect them?
The ECS is a cell-signaling system that is responsible for regulating immune responses, communication between cells, appetite, and many more processes in the body.
According to Healthline, the ECS was first identified in the 1990s when researchers were in the process of exploring THC, one of the well-known cannabinoids in cannabis. The system is made up of cannabinoids, receptors, and metabolic enzymes.
The basis of ECS in bodies, whether human or animal, is to keep the body in equilibrium, or in balance. “The ECS is the master controller for all bodily systems, including the processes associated with […] metabolism, neuroprotection, etc,” reports Emerald, which is like “a ‘dimmer switch’ [rather than] an ‘on/off switch,’” for these functions. It works to influence different organs and communicate with the brain.
Though it does not just react to cannabis, it is what drives the effects of cannabis in the body.
Think of it like any other system in our body, working to complete one task — to keep the body balanced and reactive.
The ECS just happens to be named after cannabis, and according to Very Well Health. “That’s because the substances that come from the cannabis plant — [phyto] cannabinoids — were discovered first,” the publication reports.
It was after Dr. Raphael Mechoulam first isolated THC back in 1964 that Dr. Lumir Hanus and Dr. William Devane initially discovered the ECS in 1988.
However, scientists did not discover the first endocannabinoid until March 1992, when Dr. Hanus then found the first endocannabinoid in the human brain, according to Leafly, and named it anandamide, Sanskrit for “joy.”
“The discovery of anandamide confirmed that the human brain produces cannabinoids of its own, which bind with cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain and body,” Leafly added.
Meet the Three Responsible
There are different types of cannabinoids that activate cannabinoid receptors throughout our bodies. They include phytocannabinoids, which are located in plants like cannabis or black pepper and include CBD, THC, CBN, etc. On the other hand, our bodies make endocannabinoids. So far, researchers have identified two endocannabinoids: anandamide (AEA), aka the “bliss molecule,” and the other is 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG), another omega-6 fatty acid.
Now come the cannabinoid receptors. They are located in organs throughout the body, including the brain and the surface of the skin.
Scientists have so far detected two types of cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors interact with the neurotransmitters, meaning these receptors work directly with the brain. Cannabinoids, like THC, bind to the CB1 receptors in the brain. That initiates the transmission of dopamine and produces a high feeling.
According to the scientific social network, Lab Roots, “When THC gets into the brain rapidly it attaches to the cannabinoid receptors.”
As for CB2 receptors, they typically exist in the nervous system, bloodstream, immune system, and sometimes the brain as well. CB2 receptors are associated more with inflammation and immune-related relief, and not a psychoactive release like the first receptor, Lab Roots explained further.
The final branch of the ECS is the metabolic enzymes. Those enzymes are responsible for breaking down the endocannabinoids once they have served their purpose. Specifically, the fatty acid known as amide hydrolase is the part of the enzymes that break down both endocannabinoids.
ECS and Cannabis
The system is just that, a full circle natural response that reigns inside us all. When one consumes cannabis, it activates receptors similar to endocannabinoids.
Moreover, cannabinoid receptors and cannabinoids work like a lock and key. The receptor is the lock; the cannabinoids are the key. In fact, the CB1 receptors can become harder to attract with too much cannabis use. It is recommended to take momentary tolerance breaks, which really gives the CB1 receptor time to recuperate and work at its optimum capacity.
Overall, the ECS is what triggers the body’s reaction to cannabinoids like THC or anandamide. It is what allows humans to feel their effects, whether that’s pain or stress relief.
So really, we can thank the early discovery of cannabinoids for implementing one of the most important systems in our bodies, just like we can thank the cardiovascular system for pumping blood to the heart, keeping us alive.