The effect of cannabis in your body is prominent because you already have a system to interact with the active compounds in the substance. The endocannabinoid system does not, however, produce the euphoria you are experience after using cannabis. Due to its name, people may assume that the system is related to a feeling of euphoria, pleasure, and other effects they experience after taking cannabis. That is not the case; the endocannabinoid system is an essential component of our body that regulates various body functions.
What really is the endocannabinoid system?
The endocannabinoid system regulates your body’s homeostasis by producing endocannabinoids. The word endocannabinoid is derived from the words endogenous and cannabinoid. Endocannabinoids are, therefore, cannabis-related compounds that are naturally produced by your body.
The system is responsible for keeping your body stable despite the changes in the environment, a process called homeostasis. For example, when the temperatures in your environment are too cold, the endocannabinoid system is responsible for keeping your body warm. Studies have shown that the system is not only present in humans, but also present in other mammals, reptiles, and birds.
The system regulates processes involved in pain and inflammation, which is why cannabis is used in the treatment of diseases associated with chronic pain and inflammation such as cancer. It also regulates sleep, appetite, moods, temperature, pleasure, digestion, and immune function.
Components of the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system is still under study because it was a recent discovery. Research shows that the system is comprised of three elements; endocannabinoids, enzymes and receptors. Each component plays a unique role that contributes to the overall function of the system.
Two main endocannabinoids control the endocannabinoid system, 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AD) and anandamide. The endocannabinoids function as neurotransmitters, chemicals within neurons that carry information between cells. Your body signals the endocannabinoid system to synthesize endocannabinoids after sensing changes in the environment.
Unlike most systems in your body, the endocannabinoid system is retrograde. The term retrograde implies that neurotransmitters in the system are synthesized in the postsynaptic neurons and released to the presynaptic neurons. Naturally, neurotransmitters in your body are synthesized presynaptically and released post-synaptically.
The synthesis of endocannabinoids is with precision. Once activated, the endocannabinoids only impact specific receptors in the affected area. They do not cause multiple effects as seen with cannabis use. Once their purpose is complete, they are degraded by enzymes. Endocannabinoids, therefore, have a short duration of action and do not accumulate in the body. This aspect makes cannabinoid therapy safer compared to opioid therapy in the management of conditions like cancer.
Two primary receptors regulate the endocannabinoid system, CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors are distributed in the brain and spinal cord while CB2 receptors are found in the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) and the immune system.
The PNS regulates the reproductive, digestive, and cardiovascular systems as well as organs like the pancreas, kidney, and liver. The endocannabinoid system, therefore, regulates all these organs and systems. Once released, endocannabinoids exert their action by binding to either CB1 or CB2 receptors.
There are two determinants to the effect produced by the binding of endocannabinoids to receptors. The precise location of the receptor and the specific endocannabinoid that binds to the receptor.
Chemicals in cannabis like delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) interact with these receptors to produce an effect on your body. THC, for example, interacts with CB1 receptors to produce a feeling of euphoria. The euphoria lasts long because the enzymes meant to degrade endocannabinoids cannot degrade THC.
Two main enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids after they complete their action, Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH) and Monoacylglycerol Acid Lipase (MAGL). FAAH degrades anandamide because it is a fatty acid neurotransmitter while MAGL degrades 2-AG. The enzymes make sure that the endocannabinoids do not accumulate in your body and are not used for longer than necessary.
Importance of the endocannabinoid system.
Other than maintaining your body’s homeostasis, the endocannabinoid system has been explored in the medical field. Studies show that the system is relevant in the management of conditions such as autoimmune diseases, conditions associated with chronic pain and inflammation, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, and heart conditions. In the management of cancer, for example, cannabis relieves nausea as a result of chemotherapy and also causes apoptosis (death) of cancer cells.
Deficiency of endocannabinoids.
Research shows that a person could develop a deficiency of endocannabinoids. As a result, the endocannabinoid system becomes insufficient for maintaining homeostasis. The deficiency may cause conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and fibromyalgia (a condition in which muscles and bones stiffen, causing widespread pain). Treatments for such conditions are cannabis-based and aim at restoring levels of endocannabinoids to normal.
The compound cannabidiol (CBD) in cannabis, can be used to manage endocannabinoid deficiency. CBD is capable of binding to many receptors to produce effects similar to endocannabinoids. It also increases the levels of endocannabinoids in the body by inhibiting the FAAH enzyme. Since FAAH breaks down anandamide, the use of CBD can increase anandamide levels.