The medicinal effects of cannabis are produced by cannabinoids, a form of which is also produced by the body itself – known as endocannabinoids. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) helps regulate a wide array of biological processes in the body. Memory, mood, appetite, pleasure, fertility, and many other aspects of life are influenced by the signaling of endocannabinoids within the nervous system. Here we examine the basic science related to the ECS and how cannabis interacts with the nervous system of the human body.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The human body is a city of thirty-seven trillion cells, all working together in an infinitely complex set of interacting systems to sustain the phenomena of life and consciousness. If the body is a city, the nervous system is the power and communication lines. The nervous system is constantly transmitting electrochemical signals throughout the body through neurons – brain cells – creating the sensations we experience as taste, sight, smell, hearing, and touch. Beyond the five senses, the nervous system regulates essential survival systems such as heartbeat, breathing, and digestion, as well as more nuanced aspects of the body such as circadian rhythms. A healthy nervous system is well-equipped with biochemical supplies to make neurotransmitters – signaling molecules – which move between neurons and enable conscious living creatures to experience the spectrum of sensory input and emotion.
The two main endocannabinoids currently identified are anandamide and 2-AG. These neurotransmitters are produced on-demand by the cells of the body and function as regulators of electrical signals in the nervous system. The endocannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors on the neurons, enabling them to communicate and modulate their output of electrical signals. In a healthy nervous system, neuron signaling is kept within a stable range – not too high, not too low – and the result is the absence of physical pain as well as mental disorders such as neurosis and anxiety. Anandamide is named after the Sanskrit word for divine bliss and its effect on psychology appears to relate to the emotion of joy, especially pleasure affiliated with food consumption and exercise.
When the electrochemical signaling between neurons is too high or too low, problems can arise, including chronic inflammation and anxiety disorders. Inflammation, for example, is a necessary part of the body’s natural healing process, but excessive pain signaling can lead to chronic inflammation which inhibits the healing process. Likewise, with anxiety, modern society often lives in artificial settings immersed in electromagnetic fields which often contributes to chronic anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders have become very common in modern civilization with one in five adults in the U.S. estimated to have some form of anxiety disorder within the last year.
How Cannabis Heals the Body
THC is a cannabinoid naturally produced by the cannabis plant. The molecular structure of THC is like a key that fits inside the cannabinoid receptors, activating them in a similar way as anandamide and 2-AG. The difference between anandamide and THC is the former only exists for a short time before it is broken apart by enzymes whereas THC can remain in the fatty tissues of the body for weeks. This longer duration enables the psychoactive effects for which the cannabis plant is renowned. CBD, on the other hand, does not bind well with the CB1 cannabinoid receptor. This is the reason THC produces a “high” whereas CBD does not.
The cannabinoids contained in the cannabis plant influence a range of nervous system receptors beyond just the two main identified cannabinoid receptors – CB1 and CB2. Yet, cannabis is not the only plant which interacts with cannabinoid receptors. Herbs like Echinacea, Liverwort, and even black pepper activate the CB1 and CB2 receptors in similar ways as THC. Savory delights such as chocolate and truffles also contain anandamide, which probably explains why cannabis and chocolate make a good pair. By modulating the signals transmitted throughout the nervous system, medicinal cannabis therapy can help bring a modicum of peace to the cells of the body. Relieving physical pain and inflammation, calming mental anxiety, increasing appetite and reducing nausea all result from the action of cannabinoids on the brain cells of the body by means of the ECS.
The Future of Health Research
Medical researchers have only begun to investigate the ECS. The ECS, while only vaguely understood, appears to be connected to many aspects of biology and psychology which are of paramount importance in determining the quality and enjoyment of life. Over the coming years we expect to see a deeper understanding of the ECS, and with it better methods to help people live happy, healthy, and meaningful lives.
[TL;DR – The endocannabinoid system is a part of the nervous system involved with happiness and pain relief, among other things. Cannabis stimulates this system.]