Ever thought how CBD and THC works? Thanks to its comparable structure to a compound produced by our bodies naturally, these natural chemicals are able to influence a specific network of our bodies known as the endocannabinoid system.
But what exactly is the endocannabinoid system and what are its roles?
A Brief History of the Cannabis Discovery
Even before experts discovered the endocannabinoid system (ECS), cannabis had been a prominent medicinal herb since time immemorial. Historically, practitioners used it to treat a wide array of health issues such as pain, digestive complaints and convulsive disorders. Studies on the benefits of cannabis revealed a group of chemical compounds present in the plant called cannabinoids.
There are more than 80 various types of cannabinoids in different parts of cannabis, depending on the strain. However, the two most prominent cannabinoids are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is psychoactive, which is responsible for the ‘high’ associated with cannabis use, while CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid.
In the 1940s, scientists were able to isolate cannabidiol (CBD). But it was in the mid-1960s that research on the psychotropic effect of cannabis led to the isolation of THC. The isolation of both CBD and THC ignited the interests of the medical community and further studies on the effect of these compounds on the human body has led to the discovery of what is known today as the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).
What is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)?
The Endocannabinoid system is a group of specialized cell receptors of the human body and a particular set of molecules capable of binding to these receptors. These receptors and molecules work in a way similar to a lock and key.
Cannabinoid receptors come in two types – CB1 and CB2.
CB1 receptors are often found within the central nervous system, but are also present all over the body in lower concentrations. CB2 receptors are found in immune cells, in blood cell precursors and other bodily tissues.
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Chemical molecules that attach to these receptors and activate the pathway are known as agonists. Those that bind yet prevent the pathway from being activated are called antagonists. THC can directly bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors to activate those pathways.
Cannabinoids are not naturally produced by the body so the existence of receptors CB1 and B2 that were triggered by these compounds wondered scientists and thought if the body produces its own chemical molecules that were similar to cannabinoids. Further research revealed a group of endogenous chemicals that are produced by the body to activate this pathway. They were called endocannabinoid (eCB). There are two types of endocannabinoid – anandamide, or bliss molecule and the 2-AG (2-Arachidonoyl glycerol).
Both Anandamide and 2-AG function in a similar way to THC – they bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors and activate those pathways. Apart from that, they also act as antagonist for a separate receptor, the vanilloid receptor, which works by regulating pain.
What are the Functions of ECS?
Cannabinoid receptors can be found in different parts of the body, providing a broad range of functions. The different cannabinoid receptors locations just reveals the importance of endocannabinoids for everyday functions. Activating the ECS pathways has been found to influence the following processes:
• Regulation of temperature
• Immune system
• Fertility and reproduction
• Rest and Sleep
• Reward and pleasure
• Pain sensation
• Motor control
The Endocannabinoids Anandamide and 2-Ag tell the body to make these physiological processes above working. They help keep the optimal body known as the homeostasis. Disrupting the ECS can make any of these processes unbalanced. It is believed that dysregulation of the ECS contribute to a host of conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and fibromyalgia.
What is Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency?
Researchers believe that the main cause of many disorders and ailments, specifically those associated with inflammation and immune system, could be a disorder called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency. This is a speculated spectrum disorder that develop when the body’s endocannabinoid system isn’t working properly.
The theory suggests that sometimes, the body doesn’t produce enough eCBs or receptors for the endocannabinoid system to function well. Hence, the many physiological processes we discussed earlier could become unbalanced, causing diseases to arise.
What are Endocannabinoids Made Of?
Insufficient levels of endocannabinoids in the body can lead to a host of disorders and imbalances. Yet where do these endogenous molecules come from? The answer is simple – it’s from our diet.
The body produces endocannabinoids using fatty acid. An animal study has discovered a link between low Omega-3 diet and changes in mood due to improper endocannabinoid regulation.
Good news is, there are many dietary sources of Omega-3. Hemp seeds are a good source, but fatty fishes such as sardines, tuna and salmon contain a form of Omega-3 that can be utilized by the body quickly.
Targeting ECS for Therapeutic Management
Nearly 20 years after the discovery of endocannabinoids, all members of the ECS – the cannabinoid receptors and the endocannabinoids, including the metabolic enzymes, are now considered targets for the development of compounds that can modulate human physiological processes.
In fact, there are now drugs being used to modulate the endocannabinoid system. Examples are Dronabinol and Nabilone, cannabinoid receptor agonists, that are used to reduce chemotherapy-induced vomiting and Sativex (combination of CBD and THC) for treating multiple sclerosis spasticity. In the US, the drug Epidiolex (CBD) is under investigation for childhood seizures.
Currently, several diseases such as pain, inflammation, emesis, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, anorexia, glaucoma, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s Syndrome, schizophrenia, cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disorders could possibly be treated using treatments that could modulate the endocannabinoid system.
In order to successfully utilize the therapeutic potential of ECS, a deeper understanding on how the ECS works at the cellular level and their role as a protective substance can help in creating innovative cannabinoid-based therapies for a vast array of diseases and disorders.