The human endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is the regulatory mechanism responsible for maintaining the homeostatic or homeostasis balance in the body.
This system takes care of all the other systems in our body, such as our nervous system, cardiovascular system, immune system, reproductive system, and all the physiological systems in our body.
A good example of the human endocannabinoid system in action is the way that the body controls temperature.
Our bodies must maintain a very specific temperature range of 36.5–37.5°C at all times. When you start exercising, you start to get hot, so the body has to make certain changes to ensure that body temperature stays within this range. The body expels this unwanted heat by producing sweat. This sweat then evaporates from your body in an endothermic process, which causes your body temperature to go down.
The opposite example is when you go out in the cold. Again, the body tries to adapt to keep the body temperature within range. This is why you start to shiver. These shivers are an exothermic process, which cause the body to produce heat.
Regulating temperature is just one of the many things that the endocannabinoid system is responsible for. It helps maintains a balance so that the body is able to function at its optimal levels.
All vertebrates and invertebrates are known to have the endocannabinoid system. The most primitive animal known to have endocannabinoid receptors is the sea squirt - small tuber-like animals that live in the sea and are thought to have evolved over 600 million years ago.
The fact that the endocannabinoid system is found in all these animals emphasises its importance as an ecological and survival function.
It is important to appreciate that the endocannabinoid system is a system, meaning that it is made of many different components.
The main function of the endocannabinoid system is to deliver messages, so that if that something changes, the body can react by sending a signal via one of its messenger molecules. These messenger molecules within the endocannabinoid system are called endocannabinoids.
The word “endo” is short for endogenous, meaning inside of us, just like the word “exo” is short for exogenous, meaning outside of us.
What are cannabinoid receptors?
The endocannabinoids are the messenger molecules that the body produces to deliver a message to a specific cell.
In order to deliver these messages, they must bind to a specific cell. The area where a molecule binds to a specific cell is called a receptor. The area where an endocannabinoid molecule binds to a specific cell is called a cannabinoid receptor.
There are at least two known cannabinoid receptors – CB(1) which is in the central nervous system, and CB(2), which is in the peripheral nervous system (nerves in your extremities), the digestive system, and specialised cells in the immune system.
The endocannabinoid molecules deliver their message by binding to these cannabinoid receptors. This is followed by a cascade of reactions, and something changes within the cell.
The endocannabinoid system is very fast to function when it is needed. The endocannabinoids are produced where they're needed. They act extremely quickly and they are metabolised by enzymes in the body equally fast. It's a very fast mechanism of action.
What does this have to do with CBD?
We naturally produce these endocannabinoids within in our bodies. We call them endocannabinoids to distinguish them from the plant cannabinoids, or phytocannabinoids.
However, phytocannabinoids, such as CBD, can also bind to the cannabinoid receptors in our bodies, deliver the message, and have the same therapeutic effect. Naturally occurring endocannabinoids are metabolised extremely quickly by enzymes in the body. These enzymes cannot metabolise the phytocannabinoids in the same way.
This means that the phytocannabinoids, such as CBD, actually have a much longer lasting effect in our bodies.
So when the endocannabinoid system may not be functioning properly due to various conditions, by adding plant cannabinoids such as CBD to your body, you may actually help the endocannabinoid system to restore the balance.