Understanding the endocannabinoid system is critical to understanding the effects of cannabis on the body and mind. After all, the endocannabinoid system isn’t just used to regulate key parts of the body, it’s also how cannabinoids interact with our bodies. First, the system signals other cells so you can think of it like a big communications network. “Endo” is short for endogenous, and of course cannabinoids include compounds found in cannabis. The endogenous part means “within the body,” essentially, which means the endocannabinoid system is optimally tuned to send and receive messages with cannabinoids that exist within the body — or outside. But why does all this exist? In a word: Homeostasis.
The body’s job is really to keep everything together, physically and chemically. That is, keeping the human engine working within specifications. Too hot and you have a fever, too cold and you can go into shock. Homeostasis is maintaining normalcy. If something goes awry, maybe it’s hot outside or you get hungry, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) will send the signals through the body so it can react accordingly. This is why cannabinoids from cannabis are so effective. The classic example is stimulating hunger through smoking cannabis when your body is disrupted through extensive chemotherapy.
The ECS plays a part in regulating many functions of the body, including sleep, memory, appetite, reproduction and mood. There are two types of ECS receptors, lovingly named CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptors are mostly found in the central nervous system while the CB2 receptors are found around immune cells and the peripheral nervous system. Also, scientists know of two primary endocannabinoids: anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). These are the ones produced by your body to send signals. Obviously, cannabinoids from elsewhere will affect these systems. Then, metabolic enzymes break down these compounds after they are no longer needed.
The thing is, scientists didn’t discover the ECS until the 1990’s, and are still understanding how it works within the body. Similarly, the interaction of cannabinoids and the ECS is now finally being studied in earnest. Here’s how we think smoking cannabis interacts with the body:
- Smoking puts the cannabinoids in your bloodstream, which attach to CB1 receptors, and if it’s THC it’ll create the feeling of being high.
- But another cannabinoid, which comes from your body, binds to these receptors as well. It’s called anandamide and it won’t get you high.
- Anandamide won’t get you high like THC because an enzyme, FAAH, breaks it down quickly, whereas it works more slowly on THC.
- This allows THC to have an effect while anandamide doesn’t.
As you can see, different cannabinoids will not only bind to different receptors, but enzymes and naturally-produced cannabinoids all contribute to the impact within the body. That’s why there’s so much intriguing research in this area, to determine the whys and hows of each strain’s effects and potential. The body’s messaging system is a powerful tool, and it would seem purpose-built to interact in novel ways with cannabinoids that exist elsewhere in nature. With time, we may unlock even more uses for cannabis.