CBD And The Endocannabinoid System
While the possible benefits from cannabis and hemp have been known for millennia, it is only in the 1990s that the medical community discovered the human body’s endocannabinoid system.
Researchers found out that our own body produces its own cannabinoids, which have a surprisingly extensive effect on the human body function.
What is the endocannabinoid system?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the internal structure produced by the body, keeping all our functions and organs in balance and informing us if something is out of harmony or needs to get fixed.
This system is made up of three components.
- The endocannabinoids. These are cannabis-like molecules within the body. So far, researchers have found two main endocannabinoids, namely anandamide (AEA) and 2-AG.
- Receptors in the nervous system. The aforementioned endocannabinoids stick to certain receptors and signal the body if the ECS needs to fix something. We have two types of receptors for the ECS, namely CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors.
- Enzymes. These break down the endocannabinoids once the latter have done their job in the body, and eventually discard them.
Scientists have often portrayed the endocannabinoid system as a combination of keys and locks.
Endocannabinoids are produced in the body; it is useful to visualise them as keys. They bind to the receptors which can ‘read’ the message the endocannabinoids are sending (therefore, the lock) and together they produce a chemical effect in the body.
In essence, the ECS sends signals through the cannabinoids which then find the relevant receptors and activate the body’s appropriate response.
What cannabinoids does the human body naturally produce?
The main cannabinoids naturally produced by the human body are anandamide and 2-AG.
Anandamide has been named after the Sanskrit word ‘ananda’ for bliss. That’s because anandamide has a calming and soothing effect on the body. This function is quite similar to that of THC, the hallucinogenic component of cannabis which causes the ‘high’ that people associate with marijuana.
However, anandamide doesn’t cause any hallucinogenic effects on the body because our liver enzymes break it down quickly, therefore not allowing it to linger in the body.
As for 2-AG, it is the most plentiful of endocannabinoids in the human body. It is thought to regulate appetite, our immune system, and pain management, among others.
Why does the human body have cannabinoid receptors?
CB1 and CB2 are receptors which bind with the endocannabinoids and transfer a signal through the body.
CB1 receptors are found in great numbers in our brain, central nervous system (CNS) and gut. They get activated to regulate and inform our body about depression, gut inflammation, blood pressure, and anxiety. Also, they play an important part in how our memory, mood, and pain perception function.
CB2 receptors are closely linked to our immune system and send information about any disease in our body. They are particularly helpful with autoimmune diseases and inflammations and can regulate or send signals about psychiatric, gut, or heart malfunctions.
Why is the endocannabinoid system important?
ECS is important because its effects are far-reaching within the body.
Our body is made to function in balance. All our organs and everything around and within them are meant to work in harmony. This state of balance is called homeostasis.
Homeostasis is our body’s effort to keep itself in a stable, balanced state.
Homeostasis has many functions to regulate, from the mundane such as body temperature, hunger and thirst, to the more complicated such as hormones and fighting disease.
How the endocannabinoid system works
This is where the ECS comes in. When something goes wrong, the ECS within our body is alerted that something is wrong and needs fixing.
Sometimes, the ECS can fix problems on its own without needing our interference. It will send endocannabinoids to attach themselves to their respective receptors and fix the problem. The ECS is smart enough to know which problem to fix; if there is a problem with our gut, the ECS will fix it without disturbing our immune system.
In other cases, the ECS alerts us that we need to take care of a problem. Problems can be prosaic: for instance, when the water levels in our body drop, the ECS will alert us in the form of thirst, making us get a glass of water. And when our body needs nutrients, it will create a feeling of hunger. So yes, you can blame your ECS for your chocolate cravings.
What does the endocannabinoid system regulate?
The ECS is responsible for regulating and informing us on matters related to appetite, digestion, our immune system (when a disease has entered our body), mood and sleep patterns, inflammations, fertility and hormones related to reproduction, memory, pain management, and our sense of temperature.
Many of the things we take for granted are actually controlled by the ECS. When you are cold, it is the ECS which will alert you to put a jacket on. As the ECS is unique in every one of us, different people have a different perception of cold. The ECS even explains why mothers always urge their children to put on a jacket!
The role of the enzymes
The ECS sends its endocannabinoids to do their job—transfer a message so that you can take appropriate action.
Once the message has been received, liver enzymes rapidly break down the endocannabinoids, as our body doesn’t need them anymore.
Two enzymes are responsible for breaking down anandamide and 2-AG respectively. FAAH breaks down anandamide and MAGL breaks down 2-AG.
Cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system
The reason why researchers are so interested in cannabis and hemp is that they have two main phytocannabinoids (CBD and THC) which are very similar to anandamide and 2-AG. Indeed, the endocannabinoid system took its name because of the close resemblance between the compounds found in our body and cannabis.
Researchers and doctors have been wondering whether taking CBD can help improve our own ECS and the way it works. Could it be that phytocannabinoids can somehow fix an endocannabinoid system which is out of balance or doesn’t work properly?
This is a condition known as Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD). It describes an endocannabinoid system which, for whatever reasons, cannot function properly and needs external help.
The researchers’ first step was to study how phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids taken from hemp and cannabis) can interact and help our endocannabinoids reach homeostasis. Perhaps taking phytocannabinoids can mimic the way our internal cannabinoids work? If so, could they heal the problems occurring when our body is finding it difficult to fix itself?
How does CBD affect the endocannabinoid system?
The second step was to understand how CBD connects with our ECS. Researchers discovered that CBD doesn’t stick to the CB1 and CB2 receptors like our endocannabinoids do.
Instead of binding to receptors, CBD allows our own endocannabinoids to work better and break down more slowly. This makes them more effective.
In effect, CBD allows endocannabinoids to bind better with CB1 and CB2 receptors.
What is the relation between CBD and serotonin?
While studying CBD and its effect on endocannabinoids, researchers stumbled on another interaction, this one between CBD and serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that sends signals between nerve cells. Just like anandamide and 2-AG, serotonin binds itself to a receptor, thus activating it. It is often dubbed the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter, namely because low levels of serotonin are connected to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and negative thoughts among other things.
CBD activates the same receptor that serotonin does.
Naturally, the medical community then wondered if it might be possible to activate the serotonin receptor with CBD. That would increase the levels of serotonin in the body and help treat depression and anxiety.
This is potentially a big breakthrough, as no new treatment for depression has emerged in the last 30 years. Also, existing anti-depressants tend to have major side-effects, unlike CBD’s side-effects.
While research is still carried out, it should be noted that this is consistent with consumer reports and anecdotal data which shows an improvement of anxiety and depression when users try CBD.
How do liver enzymes break down CBD?
FAAH is the enzyme which breaks down anandamide in our body. Research suggests that some people have lower levels of the enzyme FAAH. As a result, their anandamide stays longer in their body since it is less efficiently broken down. As might be expected, these people tend to be less anxious and stressed.
Again, researchers have wondered if CBD can mimic this natural phenomenon.
Studies indicate that CBD constrains the efficiency of enzymes such as FAAH and MAGL. With these enzymes constrained, anandamide and 2-AG increase in our body (since they are not broken down) and improve how our ECS works.
This is another possible way for CBD to reduce anxiety and depression.
Once researchers discovered the endocannabinoid system in the 90s, the possibility emerged that CBD can be used to improve its action.
Several studies are currently conducted to examine how our ECS works and how external phytocannabinoids such as CBD influence it.
However, the endocannabinoid system seems to affect most bodily functions, making its study particularly challenging. Thus, progress is still slow, if promising.
If you wish to try CBD for yourself, be sure you buy from a trusted source to minimize its side-effects and enjoy its potential health benefits. Read here how to choose your CBD manufacturer.
Consult with your doctor before using it, especially if you are on any kind of medication. Your doctor will help you determine your ideal CBD dosage, something which seems to play a great role in CBD’s efficiency and effect on your body.