The Endocannabinoid System
A System in review
In Cannabis Compounds you learned that the human body is host to tiny cannabinoid receptors that hang out on the surface of our various cells. We can think of these receptors as little locks waiting to open up a doorway to therapeutic effects from within. Luckily, we also produce several agonists, endocannabinoid compounds that act as 'keys' to bind to these receptors and activate or 'unlock' them. When a specific cannabinoid or combination of cannabinoids bind to the specialized receptors a series of events is triggered in the cell resulting in a change in the cell’s activity. This leads to improved function of just about everything including mood, memory, motor control, immune function, pain perception, and increase or decrease of appetite.
Together, these cell receptors make up the larger endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS) which helps the body maintain neuroprotection, stress recovery, immune balance, and homeostasis.
Cannabinoid Receptors at a glance
The endogenous cannabinoid ( or endocannabinoid ) system is comprised of cannabinoid type 1 receptors (CB1-R) and cannabinoid type 2 receptors (CB2-R). The receptors can be 'unlocked' with the introduction of three kinds of cannabinoids each governing a different myriad of effects in the body:
1. Endocannabinoids – fatty-acid cannabinoids produced naturally in the body
2. Phytocannabinoids – found in the oily resin of plants such as cannabis (THC and CBD)
3. Synthetic cannabinoids – manufactured by artificial means
CB1-R are located mainly in the brain but they can be found in many other organs including connective tissues, gonads and glands. These little guys play an important role in the coordination of movement, spatial orientation, taste, touch, smell, hearing, cognitive performance and motivation. The most important function of the CB1-R is that it acts as a traffic guard for neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. This allows your body to operate more effectively. For example, when THC binds to CB1-R, activity in the pain circuit of the brain is inhibited. Research is showing promise for this mechanism to alleviate ailments such as nausea, muscle spasticity, and seizures.
CB2-R are located outside of the brain and are primarily associated with the immune system. They live in such places as the gut, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells, endocrine glands and reproductive organs. Until recently, it was believed that CB-2R played no role with nerve cells or bundles but studies have shown that they play an important role in the signal processing of the brain. As a CB2-R antagonist, there is a good deal of supporting evidence to show that the cannabinoid CBD is a beneficial therapeutic strategy to lessen the impact of inflammatory and neuro-inflammatory diseases, aches, and pains all over the body.
Transient Receptor Potential Vanilloid-type one
Perhaps the least known receptor is Transient Receptor Potential Vanilloid-type one (TRPV1). The function of TRPV1 is to maintain homeostasis by aiding in the regulation of body temperature. In addition, TRPV1 is responsible for the sensations of extreme external heat and pain that we experience during injury. If continuously stimulated, the pathway will eventually slow down or even stop, putting an end to the pain response. This suggests therapeutic potential as a treatment for neuropathic discomforts such as phantom limb.
Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CEDC)
Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CEDC) is a proposed spectrum disorder that may play a major role in a range of illnesses including fibromyalgia, migraine and irritable bowel syndrome. Although clinical research is in its infancy, it is quite possible that these very common conditions may respond favorably to cannabinoid therapies. Let’s hope that we are able to explore this potential to it’s fullest over the years to come.
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I'm Mary J Poppins, herbalist, cannabis connoisseur and founder of the Sativa Science Club. Keep an eye on my blog Cannabis for Curious Creatures for nifty new products reviews, DIY tutorials, and scientific insights.