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Endocannabinoid System

by Angel Ferrer 3 min read


The Endocannabinoid System – an exploration into why medical cannabis is so impactful

The human brain includes receptors specifically tailored to react to THC—a fact that sometimes leads cannabis enthusiasts to conclude that we are “meant” to use cannabis. The truth is neither so simple nor so romantic, but it is far more interesting.

All vertebrates, and even some invertebrates, have cannabinoid receptors, but we didn’t evolve them so that we could use cannabis. Instead, we developed these receptors to respond to a class of chemicals we make in our own bodies called endocannabinoids. These substances are involved in a lot of different bodily processes, including memory, mood, apatite, reproduction, and immune function. 

At least some plants have their own versions of the endocannabinoid system, which helps them respond to stress. Cannabis species took the process a step farther and developed cannabinoids so similar to our endocannabinoids, they trigger our endocannabinoid receptors.

Why did cannabis do that? Probably the idea was to disrupt the nervous systems of insects who eat cannabis plants. THC causes certain kinds of memory loss in humans (and mice). If it does the same in insects, a bug who takes a bite might forget what it’s doing and wander away, leaving the plant in peace.

What Does the Endocannabinoid System Do?

The endocannabinoid system is very complicated and was only discovered a few decades ago, so there is a lot we don’t know. New discoveries come in all the time. There is also a lot of speculation out there, which is why articles say all different things. Some of that speculation may be right. It’s an incredible system.

The two best-known endocannabinoid receptors are called CB1 and CB2, but there are others being discovered. The best-known endocannabinoid is called anandamide, but again, there are others. The system includes the endocannabinoids themselves, their receptors, and all the various chemicals and structures involved in creating, responding to, and then breaking down the endocannabinoids. Each endocannabinoid works in a slightly different way, depending on which of the many cannabinoid receptors it can bind to.

Related: How Marijuana Relieves Pain

Endocannabinoids are involved in a long list of body and brain processes, including:

  • exercise-induced euphoria
  • pain regulation
  • sleep
  • the implantation of the embryo in the uterine wall 
  • stress relief
  • metabolism
  • thermoregulation
  • immune response
  • memory

Curiously, endocannabinoids seem to also be involved in forgetting, which is not simply a failure of memory but an active and necessary process of the brain. We “delete” memories we don’t need so they don’t distract us—this is why it is difficult to remember exactly what painful events felt like, though the fear that accompanied the pain can persist.

Endocannabinoids vs. Cannabinoids from Plant

The cannabinoids we get from plants are not identical to our own, they’re just close enough to trigger our receptors. That means the effects of cannabis use are not identical to the functioning of our own endocannabinoid systems. For example, 2AG, an endocannabinoid, binds with both CB1 and CB2 receptors, whereas CBD, its close chemical analogue, does not bind with CB1, which is why CBD is not psychoactive. Also, endocannabinoids are broken down again fairly quickly. In contrast, cannabinoids from plants can stay in users’ bodies for weeks (which is why users can test positive for cannabis long after use).

See More: Medical Uses of Cannabinoids

And don’t forget that endocannabinoids are only released in certain contexts and certain levels, whereas users can decide to take cannabis at any time and at any dose. Which is not to say that cannabis use is bad because it isn’t natural (when you’re sick, sometimes un-natural is what you need), it’s just different.

We can learn a lot about the endocannabinoid system from studies of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids from plants. We can also learn a lot about how cannabis could aid our health by studying how the endocannabinoid system works. Already it is clear, just looking at the list of how many bodily processes are involved with the endocannabinoid system, cannabis can change, and possibly support, our bodies in more ways than most of us ever imagined.

But it’s important to remember that THC is not the same thing as anandamide. CBD is not the same thing as 2AG. Instead, cannabinoids from plants can be thought of as a new, added dimension of the endocannabinoid system, one we are only just beginning to understand.

Closing Thoughts

The endoannabinoid system has only recently been discovered (within the last few decades) and as such research is continually exploring the ways in which this system can impact our bodily processes in ways that we are only beginning to understand. From the potential treatment of diseases to their prevention, the future looks bright for medical cannabis (where legal).