What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The body’s endocannabinoid system keeps us healthy, well-regulated and functioning at our optimal level. From motor and cognitive function to neurological and cardiovascular activity, the endogenous cannabinoid system, or ECS for short, plays a crucial and indispensable role. It is also central to our sensations of pain, hunger, stress, energy, fatigue and sleep, where it helps our bodies to maintain homeostasis, or the internal equilibrium that allows us to perform at our peak, no matter what we’re doing.
When we consume cannabidiol (CBD), we activate and modify the signals the endocannabinoid system sends out to the rest of the body. Those changes are responsible for the therapeutic effects associated with cannabidiol and other plant cannabinoids found in hemp and marijuana. In short, CBD would do nothing for us if it weren’t for the ECS. And that’s why understanding what the endocannabinoid system is, what it does, and how CBD interacts with it, is key to getting the most out of the CBD products you’re using to improve and maintain health and wellness.
The Three Parts of the Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system runs throughout the entire body, from the surface of the skin to deep within the brain. It’s a highly complex and intricate system, and researchers only discovered it in 1992, after discovering of the first endocannabinoid our body produces, named anandamide. But we can break down this complex bodily system into three main parts: endocannabinoids, the cell receptors they activate and the enzymes that break them down.
Let’s start with endocannabinoids. Our body naturally produces these compounds, but the two most prevalent are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Our body produces these two endocannabinoids whenever we need them, and their job is to find, bind to and stimulate cannabinoid receptors.
There are two principal types of receptors in the ECS system: CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors primarily influence things like motor and cognitive function. CB2 receptors, on the other hand, play a key role in protecting our nerve cells and inhibiting nerve cell inflammation. As we study the ECS and gain a better understanding of all of its parts and functions, we’re realizing that there are additional receptors, but we still don’t know exactly what their functions are.
There are key differences between CB1 and CB2 receptors in the ECS. CB1 receptors are mostly located in the central nervous system and are important for regulating numerous brain functions. For example, CB1 receptors in the brain control and regulate the release of important neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which regulates sleep and mood, dopamine, which influences pleasure, motivation and learning, and glutamate, which sends signals between nerve cells and plays an important role in learning and memory.
CB2 receptors float around the body through the bloodstream, mostly attached to immune cells, but they can also be found in certain regions of the brain. CB2 receptors are crucial for relieving pain, reducing inflammation and protecting nerve cells from damage and degeneration.
How does CBD Interact with the Endocannabinoid System?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a phytocannabinoid, which means it comes from plants (phyto-), not from our bodies, like endocannabinoids do. But the molecular shape of phytocannabinoids allows them to stimulate the CB1 and CB2 receptors that are part of the endocannabinoid system as well as preserve the function of the body’s own endocannabinoids.
In other words, the ECS provides a rich network of targets and cell receptors phytocannabinoids can interact with. And it is this relationship, the one between CBD and the ECS, that makes cannabidiol such a powerful medicinal and therapeutic compound.
Research has linked the endocannabinoid system to more than a dozen body functions and processes, which is why CBD’s influence on the ECS can produce such a wide range of different effects. At the same time, researchers are of two minds about exactly how CBD interacts with the ECS. Does CBD bind with CB1 and CB2 receptors, or influence their activity in some other way?
CBD Helps the Endocannabinoid System Restore Balance and Homeostasis
Since the ECS plays such a critical role in maintaining balance and homeostasis across different body functions and systems, imbalances seem to be connected to many health conditions, including chronic pain, anxiety, inflammation, depression, fibromyalgia and more. When we face illness or injury, the ECS has the job of attempting to correct course and reintroduce equilibrium, in order to restore healthy function.
Researchers are growing increasingly skeptical of the idea that CBD binds with CB1 and CB2 receptors like THC does. The emerging hypothesis is that CBD binds to another ECS receptor we haven’t quite discovered yet.
Additionally, many scientists believe CBD affects the endocannabinoid system by preventing endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG from being broken down by enzymes. Deficiencies in the body’s natural endocannabinoids have been linked to numerous adverse health conditions and diseases.
Therefore, if we can prevent enzymes from gobbling them up, endocannabinoids have a better chance of stimulating more significant effects on the body. As researchers continue to study this relationship, they’re finding that cannabidiol (CBD) can block ECS enzymes from breaking down anandamide and 2-AG. That, in turn, allows endocannabinoids to survive longer and do more work to restore balance and homeostasis, the number one job of the ECS.
Extensive research is currently being conducted to gain a greater understanding of the endocannabinoid system, the roles it plays in health and disease and how phytocannabinoids like CBD interact with it to produce multiple health benefits. Below is just a small selection of some of this important, ongoing research.