ECS Explained: Everything You Need to Know About the Endocannabinoid System
No matter how you look at it, the human body contains some of the most incredible and complex systems known by science.
Of these systems, one of the most fascinating is certainly the Endogenous Cannabinoid System, often referred to as the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Both crucial and mysterious, the ECS plays a vital role in many of our body's most basic functions, the full extent of which is still being studied and understood by scientists.
What we do know, however, provides an excellent glimpse into some of the body's most essential functions.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
Simply put, the ECS is a vast network of receptors located throughout the brain and body. These receptors exist nearly everywhere, from connective tissues, to immune cells, to internal organs. They are so abundant within the human body that researchers believe these cannabinoid receptors may outnumber nearly all other types.
The ECS has one main goal: maintaining homeostasis. To achieve this, receptors interact with various endocannabinoids (cannabinoids produced naturally by the body) to incur a wide variety of effects on physiological functions.
Some of these function include:
- Pain and inflammation
- Memory and learning
- Reproductive system function
- Nerve and motor function
And so much more. Despite the incredible amount of information that is brought to light with each new study on the ECS, there is still so much left to discover about the intricacies of how this system functions within the human body
Better Late than Never
Funnily enough, the discovery of cannabinoids derived from plants, i.e. phytocannabinoids, were discovered and isolated by scientists decades before the discovery of the ECS and the endocannabinoids produced naturally by the body.
CBD and THC were among the first, identified in 1940 and 1964 respectively.
Because of the undeniable impact these compounds had on humans, researchers were compelled to consider the existence of specialized receptors that enabled these interactions.
And thus, in 1988, findings by Allyn Howlett's lab at Saint Louis University was able to pin point the specific receptors that we now know as the Endogenous Cannabinoid System.
This discovery broke new ground in the ability of science to understand some of the human bodies most basic physiological functions, as well as opened the door to potential solutions for some of its oldest and most prevalent issues.
Parts of the ECS: What We Know
To help understand the ECS and how it functions, it is helpful to look at its various parts, which can be broken down into three categories.
In this sections, we will take a closer look at each one and identify it's role within the endocannabinoid system.
Thus far, researchers have identified two main receptors comprise the ECS, known as CB1 and CB2.
CB1 receptors are mostly present in the nervous system, connective tissues, gonads, glands, and organs.
CB2 receptors can be found in the immune system and its various structures.
Many tissues contain both types of receptors, each responsible for a different action when stimulated by an endocannabinoid. Researchers also theorize the existence of a third type of receptor, but this has yet to be confirmed.
Since the discovery of the ECS, researchers have been able to isolate two cannabinoids produced naturally by the body. These are:
- Anandamide (ANA)
- 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG)
The body synthesizes these molecules on demand for the purpose of interacting with the abundance of CB1 and CB2 receptors located within various tissues throughout the body.
These compounds directly influence a number of physiological functions and responses, each with the purpose of returning to and maintaining homeostasis.
The final piece of the puzzle when discussing how the endocannabinoid system is structured are enzymes. Their function is quite simple, yet inarguably essential.
These proteins act as biological catalysts for the breakdown of each endocannabinoid once it has served its purpose in interacting with the CB1 and/or CB2 receptors.
After a short half life, each known endocannabinoid degrades by the following enzymes:
- Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) breaks down ANA
- Monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL) breaks down 2-AG
The ECS and Other Cannabinoids
As mentioned before, the discovery of cannabinoids predates that of the ECS by many decades.
Now that scientists have been able to identify and study this system, more research can be done into the specifics of how various other cannabinoids interact and affect this natural bodily system.
Two of the most well know and well used cannabinoids, THC and CBD, have been studied quite extensively and have yielded promising results.
For example, THC has proven particularly powerful due to its ability to bind to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Because of this, it has proven useful in a variety of different ways. Some research has found THC helpful in pain reduction, apatite stimulation and managing PTSD.
However, due to this same versatile nature, THC can also affect subjects in ways that are less than desirable. When interacting with the CB1 receptor, THC's psychoactive properties induce the "high" feeling that it is best known for, which can trigger anxiety and paranoia in some.
Currently, more research is being done into methods of synthesizing a version of this compound that produces the desired effects and eliminates the negative.
The second most abundant cannabinoid produced by the cannabis plant, CBD, has recently been gaining quite a bit of traction in the mainstream and in scientific study.
As far as we know, this compound bind exclusively to the CB2 receptor, and thus does not induce a "high" feeling as the aforementioned THC.
By binding to the CB2 receptors, which primarily function in relation to immune response and inflammation, CBD has a huge potential as an option for managing pain, reducing inflammation and overall immune system support.
This is particularly interesting when considered alongside the recent study released by Science Magazine stating not only did CBD seem to block inflection from SARS-CoV-2 in mice, but that human patients who noted regular CBD use on their medical charts tested negative for Covid-19 at significantly higher rates.
Researchers believe this discovery warrants more research, but believe it bodes well for the potential use of using CBD as a tool against fighting Covid-19.
No matter how you slice it, the endocannabinoid system remains as fascinating as it is mysterious, and science still has a long way to go when it comes to understanding the extent of its influence on the human body.
One thing is for certain though. The ECS and the various cannabinoids that interact with it are making huge waves in the realm of how human beings understand and manage their personal health.
As Thomas Edison said in 1902, “There were never so many able, active minds at work on the problems of disease as now, and all their discoveries are tending toward the simple truth that you can’t improve on nature.”
The more we learn about the endocannabinoid system, the more true this sentiment seems to ring.
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