The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is a homeostasis-aiding system that all vertebrates possess, the function of which is to assist in the regulation of immune response, brain function, pain sensation, and mood.  The ECS consists of three core components: cannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the ECS,  “…has been implicated in different behaviors, including food intake, the reinforcing characteristics of drug abuse, and cognitive processing…”, as well as memory and executive functions such as flexible thinking and self-control.  To this end, the body produces two of its own cannabinoids, known as AEA and 2-AG, and between the two of them are responsible for helping to regulate all of the aforementioned mind and body functions.

These two endocannabinoids (cannabinoids produced within the body) create effects throughout the body by interacting with certain cannabinoid receptors.  As of yet, only two major cannabinoid receptors have been identified in the human body, and they are known as CB1 and CB2 receptors.  CB1 receptors are located primarily in the brain and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are located throughout the body, though particularly on immune cells.  Cannabinoids can bind to either receptor, but the effect they have depends on where the receptor is located, and which endocannabinoid binds to it.  For example, AEA tends to bind with the CB1 receptor while 2AG has an affinity for CB2, according again to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. 

The third primary player in the Endocannabinoid System are metabolic enzymes.  These are the enzymes that break down the cannabinoids within the ECS, and there is one primary enzyme for breaking down each of the two endocannabinoids.  The first is FAAH, which breaks down AEA, and the other is MAGL, which breaks down 2AG.  The role of these enzymes in the breaking down of endocannabinoids differs from other molecular signals in the body, such as hormones or classical neurotransmitters, and sets the ECS apart from other body systems in that cannabinoids are broken down once they are used, rather than persisting or being stored.

Until recently, the ECS has done all its work- regulating immune response, brain function, pain sensation, and mood- using just its own TWO endocannabinoids.  Science has recently discovered that the cannabis plant contains at least 100 different cannabinoids, with at least as many functions.  The applications are nearly endless, and the world of exo-cannabinoid supplements is just beginning to bloom.  Much like the Vitamin C boom of the 1960’s, we’re beginning to see the many positive attributes of cannabinoids, and some, like CBD, are already nearly as popular.  And, with research burgeoning in exo-cannabinoids, the best is yet to come.

Resources Referenced
NCBI: Introduction to the Endogenous Cannabinoid System
NCBI: Endocannabinoid Binding to the Cannabinoid Receptors