Exploring the Endocannabinoid System
We were born to 420!
Weed is taking over the world. Ireland and Peru are going medical; Israel is exporting cannabis; and Canada is going full adult-use. Nice! Yet, all this excitement about cannabis and cannabinoids points to a much larger and important topic: you...and your endocannabinoid system. That’s because without it, much of what cannabis currently offers wouldn't make sense. Our bodies have evolved to interact with cannabis; so much so, we actually produce our own cannabinoids.
Ready to dive in? We’ll journey through physiology, plants, and cannabinoids to better understand exactly why so many people across the planet are truly feeling and healing with this plant. Suit up!
No great discussion about the endocannabinoid system (ECS) can begin without a quick primer on cannabinoids. What are they? What do they do? We’ve discovered that cannabis contains hundreds of active compounds, around 100 of which are phytochemicals known as cannabinoids. THC is one. CBD is another. There's also CBG, CBC, CBN—the list goes on. They’re called cannabinoids because they exist in the cannabis plant, but it turns out certain cells in our body produce cannabinoids, too. Our endocannabinoid system is built to interact with these cannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are ones your body produces. Phytocannabinoids are produced by plants. Synthetic cannabinoids are manufactured, typically by pharmaceutical companies.
You have cannabinoid receptors located throughout your body. Their primary function is to interact with all forms of cannabinoids, which, depending on which ones and in what ratios, can produce myriad effects. Trippy, right? It gets better: all mammals have endocannabinoid systems; pretty much most familiar creatures do except insects. Numerous plants other than cannabis produce cannabinoids, too. If you’re reading this, you’ve evolved to interact with cannabis on a molecular and biological level along with birds, reptiles, fish, sea urchins, and more.
The ECS: Our Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system is one of the body's regulatory mechanisms. It affects numerous biological processes, and is made up of both endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors. Endocannabinoids are named such because they are endogenous to our bodies. So far we’ve discovered that our bodies produce the cannabinoids anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), present in all humans. We’ve also discovered two primary cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. These receptors interact with our own body’s cannabinoids, phytocannabinoids like those from cannabis (THC, CBD!), and synthetic cannabinoids found in pharmaceutical medications like Marinol, which is comprised of chemically synthesized THC.
Israel's Dr. Raphael Mechoulam discovered the ECS in the 80s, and since, we’ve come to learn cannabinoid receptors are some of the most prevalent neurotransmitters in our brains. They’re also found in our immune systems, nervous systems, cardiovascular systems, reproductive systems, and gastrointestinal and urinary tracts! Researchers are still discovering cannabinoid receptors throughout the body as research continues.
Archaeological evidence shows humans have cultivated and utilized cannabis since ancient times. Nearly 12,000 years of use that we verifiably know of...and there’s never been a recorded fatal overdose! It’s now widely accepted that humans have evolved alongside the cannabis plant; coexisting with it, using it for fiber, ceremony, food, fuel, and more. There’s actually over 25,000 documented uses for cannabis.
Furthermore, all vertebrate animals and even some invertebrate animals have endocannabinoid systems. This points to cannabinoids’ profound significance in the overall process of evolution. Researchers are postulating the ECS first developed almost 500 million years ago!
Cannabinoid Deprivation & Disease
If cannabinoids are so essential, then why has cannabis been outlawed since the onset of the 20th century? This is a profound question, and a tremendous argument for advocating the normalization and legalization of cannabis worldwide. Most importantly, especially since prohibition began, have we developed an epidemic of cannabinoid deficiencies? It’s likely. In 2006 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published the following:
“In the past decade, the endocannabinoid system has been implicated in a growing number of physiological functions, both in the central and peripheral nervous systems and in peripheral organs. More importantly, modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system turned out to hold therapeutic promise in a wide range of disparate diseases and pathological conditions, ranging from mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury, to cancer, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, stroke, hypertension, glaucoma, obesity/metabolic syndrome, and osteoporosis, to name just a few…”
When we lack sufficient endocannabinoids in our body, doctors call it “clinical endocannabinoid deficiency,” and researchers are linking endocannabinoid deficiency to these numerous ailments—even some that were previously untreatable by conventional methods. Illnesses like irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and migraines have all responded favorably to cannabinoid therapies. When our endocannabinoid systems aren’t balanced and healthy, illness and disease follow.
If our endocannabinoid systems already produce anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), why do we need cannabinoids from plants like cannabis? Remember, cannabis contains hundreds of cannabinoids, and research is showing that microdoses of cannabis cannabinoids cause the ECS to both produce more endocannabinoids and build more cannabinoid receptors. This leads to a stronger, healthier endocannabinoid system capable of maintaining all those essential biological functions we associate with great health. Therefore, the moderate and correct dosing of quality cannabinoids from cannabis can help us prevent disease and promote wellbeing. The phytocannabinoids in cannabis help support the ECS. This is why we’re noticing cannabis assists with so many different ailments, even those in our pets. Awesome, right?
While cannabinoids are crucial for great health, they’re also being shown to reverse certain illnesses and disease. This is where the future of cannabis, cannabis genetics, and cannabis medicine is unfolding. While pharmaceutical synthetic cannabinoids like Marinol have been prescribed to stimulate the ECS, the side effects can be very unpleasant. Companies are scrambling to produce cannabinoid therapies with fewer side effects, while patients across the world are looking to use cannabis flower, oils, and edibles as a more robust and functional form of whole plant medicine; oftentimes with fewer negative side effects. Still, one of the biggest barriers to properly stimulating the ECS with cannabis cannabinoids is prohibition and criminalization, even though cannabis is shown to be safer than more readily available substances like caffeine, tobacco and alcohol. It’s also proven to be non-addictive with no fatal risk from overdose.
Researchers are also working to discover and highlight the benefits of cannabinoid-containing plants other than cannabis. Certain forms of salvia, kava kava, Japanese liverwort, maca, black pepper, chili peppers, hops, lemon flower, turmeric, black truffle, and tea have all shown promise in stimulating the ECS.
Another area of research is focused on cannabinoids other than famed THC and CBD. Cannabinoids like Cannabigerol (CBG) and Cannabinol (CBN)—often known as minor phytocannabinoids—are showing incredible effects. CBG is being researched as a potent antidepressant and antibiotic that also displays profound benefits for people undergoing chemotherapy. CBN is being studied as a sedative, similar to Diazepam (Valium), that produces little psychoactive effects. CBN is purported to be expressed as THC ages and is the cannabinoid most commonly associated with “couchlock.”
Currently, the endocannabinoid system remains severely understudied—the subject still taboo at universities and research institutions. Rescheduling cannabis and legalization will help pave the way for further ECS research. New cannabinoid discoveries can help humanity by stimulating healthier plant and animal kingdoms. So get involved, organize, and legalize it!