Keys and Locks: Understanding the endoCannabinoid System

Maybe you haven’t heard yet, but humans (and all other mammals) have a network of receptors found throughout the brain and body that respond to the chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant. Our bodies even make chemical compounds that are very similar to the compounds found in the cannabis plant. This system is called the endoCannabinoid system (eCB system.) It happens to be named for the cannabis plant which ultimately led to the discovery of the eCB system in the late 1980’s. It is an important physiologic system in our bodies as its primary function is to promote and maintain a state of health in the body.

How does the endoCannabinoid System maintain a healthy body?

The 12th body system is primarily responsible for promoting and maintaining a process called homeostasis. Homeo-what? Homeostasis is the promotion of a stable internal environment despite constant external fluctuations. It is the body’s checks-and-balance system.

Need an example to understand homeostasis a bit better? Sure. Body temperature regulation (thermoregulation) is a good example of a homeostatic process in the body. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Significant increases or decreases in body temperature can cause serious complications, so the body will typically try to maintain that 98.6 degree temperature by either producing heat if the body is too cold, or releasing heat if the body is too warm. Make sense? And yes, in case you were wondering — the eCB system does play a role in thermoregulation.

More about this network of receptors that promotes homeostasis…

Researchers have discovered two primary cannabinoid (CB) receptors — CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptors tend to be located in the nervous system, connective tissues, gonads, glands, and organs. The function of these receptors is dependent on the specific part of the body that it is located in. For example, the CB1 receptors found in the nerve endings act to reduce pain. CB1 receptors found in the amydala (the memory and emotional processing center in the brain) may help someone struggling with post-traumatic stress to forget. Conversely, when the CB1 receptor is stimulated in someone with dementia, it may help the person remember.

CB2 receptors are found throughout the immune system, and also in the spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells, endocrine glands, and reproductive organs. CB2 receptors primarily act to reduce inflammation in the body which is essential in reducing symptoms of chronic conditions and diseases (but not limited to) arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and dementia.

Unlocking the eCB system from the inside

Endogenous cannabinoids are the developed within the body. Researchers have identified two such endo-cannabinoids — anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycero, or simply 2-AG.

Endocannabinoids should be thought of as keys to open the locks that are the CB receptors. They are also known as neurotransmitters. When these keys open the locks, a chemical message is sent along the neurons, or nerve cells in the body. A process called neurotransmission. Communication happens between the brain and the body, and functional changes happen from there.

Anandamide is named for the sanskrit word for bliss. In fact, anandamide is often called the bliss molecule. It is a chemical messenger that looks a lot like it’s phytocannabinoid cousin — Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol — also known as THC. You may know THC as the favorite psychoactive phytocannabinoid of cannabis users everywhere. We’ll take a closer look at THC shortly.

Anandamide tends to bind with CB1 receptors found in the central nervous system which is comprised of the brain and spinal cord. It is thought that anandamide is responsible for the runner’s high and other euphoric, or blissful states of being. Hence its name.

Note the similar molecular shape of endogenous cannabinoid - anandamide, and phytocannabinoid THC

Note the similar structure between these two molecules - Endocannabinoid Anandamide on the left; Phytocannabinoid THC on the right - Photo