What is the Human Endocannabinoid System?

The CB Receptors in the endocannabinoid system

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Zara Kenyon

If you’ve read up on the reported benefits of CBD, you might have noticed experts talking about the endocannabinoid system. Also known as the ECS, it plays a pivotal role in the way your body functions and – according to studies – the therapeutic effects CBD is believed to offer.

But, what is the endocannabinoid system? And how does it actually work? Keep scrolling for your complete guide to this complex, cell-signalling phenomenon.

What is the Human Endocannabinoid System?

Discovered in the early nineties, the human endocannabinoid system is responsible for intercellular communication in our bodies. Put simply, it sends soothing signals between cells, helping to maintain the balance between different biological functions – also known as homeostasis.

While there’s still much to be researched and revealed about the influence of the ECS, scientists found that it’s closely associated with the body’s self regulating processes. For example, research suggests it can have an effect on the control of metabolism, appetite, pain response, motor coordination, stress – and so much more. The ECS is one of the most extensive biological systems of receptors in the body, meaning it handles many functions necessary for survival.

CBD and the human endocannabinoid system
What is the Endocannabinoid system?

Who Has an Endocannabinoid System?

It’s not just humans who are born with the endocannabinoid system. In fact, it’s found in the brain and nervous system of all mammalian species, emphasising its importance in the body. The most primitive animal shown 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.

How Does Your Endocannabinoid System Work?

Now you know what the endocannabinoid system is, and who has one, it’s important to understand how it has such a big impact on various functions in the body. There are three key components that make up the system: cannabinoids, receptors and enzymes. Here’s how each of them ‘unlocks’ homeostasis…

1. Cannabinoids

Around the same time scientists first discovered the endocannabinoid system, they also uncovered a naturally-occurring cannabinoid called anandamide. Known as the ‘bliss molecule’, it’s responsible for the ‘high’ that you feel after exercise and meditation, amongst a number of other cognitive processes, like mood control.

Shortly after, another cannabinoid named 2-AG was revealed. This is the most prevalent in the body, responsible for managing appetite, pain response and immune system functions. Anandamide and 2-AG are endogenous cannabinoids (or endocannabinoids), meaning they’re produced internally by the body – often in response to physiological imbalances in the body.

2. Cannabinoid Receptors

Think of cannabinoids as keys, and receptors as the padlocks they slot into. These locks are found all throughout the body, in the nervous system, glands, immune cells, organs, brain and connective tissue.

When a key (or a cannabinoid) fits a padlock, it causes a reaction in the body. For example, when anandamide binds to a receptor, a blissful state may kick in. There are two main types of cannabinoid receptors in the body. First, you have CB1, which exists in the brain and spinal cord, working to regulate appetite and memory, and to reduce pain.

Then there’s CB2, which is distributed in the immune system. Its primary goal is to reduce inflammation throughout the body. When your ECS is working correctly, it will produce the endocannabinoids you need when you need them, directing them to the correct CB1 or CB2 receptor for homeostasis.

3. Enzymes

Finally, enzymes are present in the endocannabinoid system to synthesise and recycle used endocannabinoids after the body is through with them.

There are two main degrading enzymes: fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down anandamide, and monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which typically breaks down 2-AG.

Meanwhile, anandamide is synthesised mainly by the sequential action of N-acyltransferase (NAT) and N-acylphosphatidylethanolamine- specific phospholipase D (NAPE-PLD). 2-AG is synthesised by diacylglycerol lipase (DAGL).

Cannaray CBD capsules

What Does Your Endocannabinoid System Do?

Here’s an example of the system at work: imagine you’re experiencing high levels of stress. This causes your body to produce the stress hormone known as cortisol. When cortisol levels rise, the endocannabinoid system responds by triggering the production of endocannabinoids. They rush to the right receptor and bind to it, which balances cortisol production in the blood. Essentially, those endocannabinoids are like an internal ‘emergency service’, working hard to help your body work in perfect harmony.

Endocannabinoid System Diagram

How Might CBD Affect the Endocannabinoid System?

As you now know, your body naturally produces endogenous cannabinoids, known as endocannabinoids. However, research suggests that exogenous cannabinoids (which are created outside of the body) can also have an effect on your internal receptors. CBD is one such cannabinoid, but studies on its effects are in their early stages. Some believe it provides therapeutic benefits by preventing endocannabinoids from breaking down, while others think it may bind to an undiscovered receptor. With this in mind, it’s no wonder CBD’s relationship with the ECS has garnered so much interest. However, CBD’s effects on your body don’t stop there; it also works by affecting other physiological systems – not just the ECS.

CBD products that work with the endocannabinoid system

How Can I Try CBD?

There are multiple ways to take CBD. Sublingual application of a CBD oil is one of the most effective methods, offering ultra-fast absorption when placed directly underneath your tongue.

If you’d like to try it, opt for the CBD Oral Drops. We recommend starting with the 300mg bottle (10mg per dropper), then adjusting to a higher dosage as you see fit. To make CBD part of your self-care routine, you could also try working topicals, such as the CBD Muscle Balm into areas of tension. It’s believed topical CBD may interact with localised cannabinoid receptors near the surface of the skin.

Want to know more about how CBD can interact with the human body? Discover the ways fitness lovers are using CBD after a workout.

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