The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex signaling system that plays a crucial role in regulating various physiological processes in the body. It was discovered in the 1990’s while researching the effects of THC on the human body, but it was later found that the body produces its own cannabinoids and has a system to regulate them.
The ECS is composed of three main components:
These are naturally occurring compounds produced by the body that bind to endocannabinoid receptors. The two primary endocannabinoids identified so far are anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).
Cannabinoid Receptors: There are two main types of cannabinoid receptors in the body: CB1 and CB2 receptors.
- CB1 Receptors: These are primarily found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and are responsible for regulating processes such as pain perception, mood, appetite, and memory.
- CB2 Receptors: These are mostly located in immune cells and peripheral tissues. They are involved in regulating immune responses, inflammation, and other processes related to the immune system.
Enzymes are responsible for the synthesis and degradation of endocannabinoids. The two main enzymes involved are fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down anandamide, and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), which breaks down 2-AG.
The ECS plays a vital role in maintaining homeostasis, which is the body’s ability to regulate its internal environment and maintain stability despite external changes. It is involved in a wide range of processes, including:
- Pain regulation: The ECS modulates pain perception and can influence the experience of pain.
- Mood and emotions: The ECS is linked to the regulation of mood, stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Appetite and metabolism: The ECS can impact hunger and food intake.
- Inflammation and immune responses: The ECS plays a role in regulating inflammation and immune system functions.
- Memory and learning: The ECS affects processes related to memory formation and learning.
- Sleep: The ECS can influence sleep patterns and sleep quality.
- Reproductive processes: The ECS is involved in various aspects of reproductive health.
Because of its widespread influence on various physiological processes, the endocannabinoid system has gained attention in medical research and the development of treatments for conditions such as chronic pain, neurological and neurodegenerative disorders, mood disorders, and more.
So why does cannabis help?
Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids that are naturally produced by the cannabis plant. When consumed, these compounds interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in a way that can influence various physiological processes in the body. The two most well-known phytocannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), but there are many others present in different strains of cannabis.
Here’s how phytocannabinoids interact with the ECS:
- Binding to Cannabinoid Receptors: Phytocannabinoids can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, just like the body’s endocannabinoids. The binding of phytocannabinoids to these receptors can activate or modulate the receptor’s signaling pathways, leading to various effects. For example, THC is known to primarily bind to CB1 receptors in the brain, which can result in the psychoactive “high” associated with cannabis use.
- Modulating Neurotransmitter Release: Activation of CB1 receptors in the brain, particularly in areas involved in memory, mood, and cognition, can influence the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. This is one reason why cannabis consumption can affect mood and cognitive processes.
- Influencing Pain Perception: Both THC and CBD can affect pain perception. THC can activate CB1 receptors involved in pain modulation, potentially providing pain relief. CBD, on the other hand, has a more complex mechanism and can indirectly modulate pain perception by interacting with various receptors and pathways involved in pain signaling.
- Regulating Inflammation and Immune Responses: CB2 receptors are predominantly found in immune cells and peripheral tissues. Phytocannabinoids can activate CB2 receptors, influencing immune responses and inflammation. This is why cannabis and its derivatives are being explored for their potential anti-inflammatory properties.
- Affecting Neurotransmitter Release: Phytocannabinoids can impact the release of neurotransmitters like GABA and glutamate, which play crucial roles in brain function and communication between nerve cells.
- Interacting with Non-Cannabinoid Receptors: CBD, in particular, interacts with several receptors beyond the cannabinoid receptors. These are known to help reduce seizures in epilepsy, other minor phytocannabinoids like CBDV act on GABA receptors which regulate neuron activity and can aid seizure control.
It’s important to note that the effects of phytocannabinoids can vary based on factors such as the specific cannabinoid, its concentration, the presence of other compounds in the cannabis plant (known as the entourage effect), the individual’s genetics, the underlying cause of their epilepsy, and their overall health. Additionally, the interaction between phytocannabinoids and the ECS is a complex and dynamic process that researchers are still actively studying.
For a further in-depth understanding and latest research in the field of this medicine for epilepsy, Dr Bonni Goldstein explains more in our webinar below.