The Endocannabinoid System: The Secret To Balanced Health?
“I would like to probably push ahead and tell people: Here we have a group of compounds… an endogenous system of major importance… it is not being used as much as it should be in the clinic… it is of great promise in the clinic… let’s try to push it forward.”
– Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, The Scientist
The discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the human body should’ve been one of the most significant breakthroughs in medical history. Instead, it was largely ignored by the scientific community for decades and still remains overlooked today.
If it wasn’t for the dedication and perseverance of pioneers in cannabis research like Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, we may never have discovered how important the endocannabinoid system is in regulating physiology, mood, and everyday experiences in humans.
Not only has the ECS been implicated in a growing number of physiological functions, both in the central and peripheral nervous systems and in peripheral organs, researchers have discovered that modulating the activity of the ECS holds therapeutic promise for treating a wide range of diseases and pathological conditions. These include but are not limited to epilepsy and seizures, osteoporosis, arthritis, glaucoma, mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury, cancer, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, stroke, hypertension, obesity/metabolic syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Today, the ECS is viewed as one of the most exciting and promising new areas for research as evidenced by the growing number of studies exploring its regulatory functions in health and disease. These studies not only offer new insights into the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic actions of plant-derived phytocannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), but also explore novel molecular targets for pharmacotherapy as well.
But what is the endocannabinoid system? And more importantly, is it really the secret to balanced health?
To help you understand more, this mini-guide to the ECS will give you more insight into what it is, how it works and why researchers believe it could be the key to achieving balanced health in the human body.
The Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system is present in all humans as well as nearly every other animal except insects. It consists of a series of receptors that bind with cannabinoids like a system of locks and keys which plays a major role in day-to-day bodily functions.
The discovery of this system as an integral part of our physiologies began when Dr. Mechoulam – known as the “Father of Cannabis” – first identified the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis and also elucidated the chemical structure of the cannabidiol (CBD) in the 1960s. But although scientists learned a great deal about the pharmacology, biochemistry and clinical effects of cannabis in the two decades that followed, no one really knew how it worked or what it actually did inside the brain on a molecular level.
It wasn’t until 1988, that the first receptor sites were found. In a U.S. government-funded study led by Allyn Howlett and William Devane, researchers discovered cannabinoid receptor sites inside the mammalian brain that were more abundant than any other type of neurotransmitter receptor. They called them type 1 cannabinoid receptors or “CB1”.
CB1 receptors are specialized protein molecules embedded in cell membranes that respond pharmacologically to compounds found in cannabis. They have been found in large numbers in several areas of the human brain, including the basal ganglia (affecting motor activity), neocortex (thinking), hippocampus (short-term memory), cerebellum (motor coordination), periaqueductal gray (pain perception), and hypothalamus and limbic cortex (appetite and sedation).
Researchers soon identified a second type of cannabinoid receptor, found throughout the immune system and the peripheral nervous system. Named “CB2”, these receptors are also present in the gut, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells, endocrine glands and reproductive organs.
In 1992, Mechoulam reported the discovery of a compound produced by the human body – a naturally-occurring “endocannabinoid,” which attaches to the same mammalian brain-cell receptors as THC. The endocannabinoid was named “anandamide,” which was derived from the Sanskrit word for bliss. Not long after, Mechoulam also announced the discovery of a second major endocannabinoid – 2-arachidonoylglycerol, or “2-AG” – that binds to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors.
After the identification of cannabis compounds, then the discoveries of CB1, CB2, and then endocannabinoids, it became clear that scientists had stumbled onto an extremely important yet previously unknown signaling system inside the human body. Scientists named this system the “endocannabinoid system” and today, it is widely believed to be responsible for regulating a broad range of biological functions.
All of the research to date has only reinforced the notion that the ECS is perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining good health.
As mentioned, endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body from the brain, to the organs, to the immune system, and to the peripheral nervous system. Yet even though the ECS will function differently depending on the location, the goal is always the same: to achieve homeostasis in the body.
For example, traumatic brain injury (TBI) happens when an external force causes brain dysfunction. TBI usually results from a violent blow or jolt to the head or body or when an object penetrates the skull.
As a natural response, TBI will trigger the accumulation of harmful mediators that may lead to secondary damage. These include glutamate, which has been shown to increase the mortality rate in patients after TBI, reactive oxygen species (ROS), which has been identified as one of the major damaging factors in ischemic stroke, and pro-inflammatory cytokines, in which massive and uncontrolled release of these cytokines have been shown to result in additional brain damage, to name a few.
However, TBI also triggers protective mechanisms by the ECS as well.
In response to TBI, levels of the endocannabinoid 2-AG immediately spike which has been shown to decrease brain edema, inflammation and infarct volume and improve clinical recovery. This suggests that the formation of endocannabinoids may represent a ‘self-neuroprotective’ and neuroregenerative response that works against harmful mediators to minimize pain and damage, and stabilize the internal environment of the brain.
Of course, TBI is just one example of how the ECS functions to achieve homeostasis in the brain. The mechanisms of action apply to the organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells as well.
According to biologist Robert Melamede, “Endocannabinoids are central players in life’s multidimensional biochemical balancing act known as homeostasis.” He describes the ECS as the master modulator, which is constantly multitasking, adjusting and readjusting the complex network of molecular thermostats that control our physiological tempo.
The ECS, with its complex actions, is literally a bridge between body and mind. By understanding and learning more about this system, we can develop new and better therapies for the treatment of diseases and pathological conditions in the future.
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