The Endocannabinoid System

Surprising facts on how the human body works with cannabis

What is the endocannabinoid system?

The cannabis industry is evolving quickly in both the recreational and medicinal market. With uptake rising and curiosity dominating the public, consumers and health-care professionals want to know its role in medicine. In science, we are taught that the human body is made up of 11 major organ systems; including the nervous system, respiratory system, digestive system, reproductive system, etc. And it’s the combination of all these systems that make up the human body. However, we have another system in our bodies.

Fact #1: Did you know that there is another system found in the body? The endocannabinoid system.

A phenomenon known as homeostasis ensures that the internal processes in our bodies are stable; such as body temperature, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. Like all other organ systems, the endocannabinoid system plays a role in homeostasis; affecting everything from sleep, pain, inflammation, memory, mood, and even heart rate.1

The endocannabinoid system is primarily made up of two receptors: CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors.

CB1 vs CB2 receptors

Fact # 2: The endocannabinoid system is primarily made up of two receptors: CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors. Within the body, CB1 receptors are found mainly in the brain, lungs, liver, and kidneys; while CB2receptors are found in areas of the immune system, such as the spleen.2

Fact # 3: When consuming cannabis, the two primary molecules that interact with these receptors are Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD).

  • THC binds to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors,
  • CBD interacts with them indirectly.3
  • Research indicates that CBD can counter the bond between THC and the receptor, therefore decreasing some of its effects, such as the ‘high’, and symptoms such as anxiety.3

What does the endocannabinoid system do?

Fact # 4: When CB1 receptors are activated, they may play a role in appetite regulation, memory, emotional processing, and sensations of pain and nausea.

Fact # 5: On the other hand, when CB2 receptors are activated, they have been studied to reduce inflammation, promote digestive health, and sensations of pain.2 The number of receptors in each person is unique and the concentrations vary between individuals. As a result, the effects may vary depending on the patient and between cannabis strains.2

A key area of interest in the endocannabinoid system is its pain-relieving effects. When comparing the effects of cannabis and opioids, opioids bind to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, neurons and digestive tract; whereas THC binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors of the endocannabinoid system.6 Evidence also suggests that CBD can reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms and may help prevent relapses.5

To date, opioids have been the traditional therapy for treating pain. However, their highly addictive properties and overdose deaths have been catastrophic. Therefore, more research is needed to routinely recommend cannabis as a pain-relieving medication, but until then, it very well could be an effective medication against chronic pain and opioid dependence.

Overall thoughts on the endocannabinoid system

The endocannabinoid system is a new area of research for both patients and health-care professionals. This is simply a broad overview of the endocannabinoid system and its potential uses. However, as more research is developed, and more information comes to light, we will have a better understanding of how the endocannabinoid system works in our bodies and how cannabis plays a role in it.

References

  1. Jikomes N. What is the endocannabinoid system and what is its role? Leafly. https://www.leafly.com/news/science-tech/what-is-the-endocannabinoid-system. Published December 12, 2016. Accessed March 29, 2019.
  2. Green Relief. Cannabinoid Receptors 101: Why do we have them?. Green Relief. https://www.greenrelief.ca/blog/cannabinoid-receptors/. Last updated June 28, 2018. Accessed March 29, 2019.
  3. Cadena A. CBD vs THC: The Difference Explained. CBDOrigin. https://medium.com/cbd-origin/cbd-vs-thc-the-difference-explained-b3cfc1da52f0. Published September 29, 2018. Accessed March 29, 2019.
  4. The endocannabinoid System: How cannabis affects the human body. Cannainsider.https://www.cannainsider.com/reviews/the-endocannabinoid-system/. Accessed March 29, 2019.
  5. Auerbach A. The biology of Cannabis vs Opioids for Pain Relief. Leafly. https://www.leafly.com/news/science-tech/medical-marijuana-opioid-pain-relief-substitute. Published July 31, 2017. Accessed April 4, 2019.
  6. Ghelardini C, Di Cesare Mannelli L, Bianchi E. The pharmacological basis of opioids. Clin Cases Miner Bone Metab. 2015;12(3):219–221. doi:10.11138/ccmbm/2015.12.3.219