Within our bodies, and the bodies of most animals, is an extensive network of neurons, cells, cell receptors, molecules and enzymes that is responsible for regulating brain health, inflammatory response, pain, bone health, sleep patterns and mood. This system is called the endogenous cannabinoid system, or endocannabinoid system (“ECS”), and its ultimate goal is to maintain our body’s state of homeostasis (balance).
Although the endocannabinoid system started developing in life on earth over 600 million years ago, it wasn’t identified until the 1980s when Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, one of the pioneering researchers of THC and its effects on the body, was studying cannabis. When the body is injured or detects disease or infection, the ECS is activated and produces endocannabinoids designed to support the body’s fight towards the affliction. The two major endocannabinoids are:
- N-arachidonoylethanolamine, also referred to as anandamide (“AEA”), and
- 2-arachidonoylglycrol (“2-AG”)
These endocannabinoids bind to and activate endocannabinoid cell receptors CB1 and CB2. Although both of these receptors are found throughout the body, CB1 receptors are more prevalent in the brain, and CB2 receptors are more abundant in the immune system and immune regulating organs.
The body also produces the following endocannabinoid enzymes:
- DAGL-a – works synergistically with the 2-AG cannabinoid
- DADL-b – works synergistically with the 2-AG cannabinoid
- NAPE – works synergistically with the AEA cannabinoid
- MAGL – breaks down 2-AGs
- FAAH – breaks down AEAs.
When there is a deficiency in the ECS, this state of balance cannot be achieved and irregularities in the systems that the ECS regulates are felt.
Endocannabinoids AEA and 2-AG are produced on demand and are not stored. So when your body is under duress, the ECS signals the production of AEA and 2-AG endocannabinoids which bind to and activate the necessary CB1 and CB2 receptors with the intent of correcting whatever imbalance is occurring and then returns the body to a state of homeostasis.
This process happens rather quickly, sometimes in a matter of seconds, and once activated the innate cannabinoids are absorbed, and their effects are no longer felt.
Now let’s talk about cannabis and its role in the ECS. Cannabis produces over 400 compounds, 116 or more of which are classified as cannabinoids, or more accurately phytocannabinoids. Cannabis is the only known plant that contains cannabinoids that interact with the ECS.
The most famous, or infamous, of which is D9-Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the compound found in cannabis that produces the psychoactive effect of feeling “high.” It is important to understand, for those of you who are turned off by this attribute, the therapeutic benefits far outweigh the stigma. Even taken in trace amounts, clinical trials have shown that THC has anti-cancer properties, anti-inflammatory properties, can be neuroprotective, can be an anti-epileptic, can stimulate appetite, and can also assist with sleep regulation.
The second most studied phytocannabinoid to date, and the most abundant non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis, is cannabidiol or CBD. Clinical studies have shown that CBD can be used in conjunction with pharmaceuticals or as a natural alternative to support those affected with traumatic brain injuries, childhood epilepsy, anxiety, pain, and regulation of blood sugar levels. CBD supports neurological function and is an effective antibacterial. CBD also blocks the metabolic enzyme FAAH which breaks down the endocannabinoid anandamide. This blocking effect is what enables users to experience prolonged relief from whatever damage or invasion is occurring.
Other important phytocannabinoids are:
- Cannabichromene or CBC
- Cannabichromenic acid CBCA
- Cannabidiolic acid or CBDA
- Cannabigerol or CBG
- Cannabigerolic acid CBGA
- Cannabinol or CBN
- D9-Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid or D9-THCA
- D9-Tetrahydrocannabivarin or D9-THCV
In addition to phytocannabinoids, cannabis also contains terpenes which give cannabis its aromatic aroma and flavor. More importantly, terpenes enhance the therapeutic properties of cannabis’ phytocannabinoids. Terpenes are found in all plants and also carry their own therapeutic properties.
Some of the more common terpenes are:
In summary, phytocannabinoids are similar to endocannabinoids but not identical. The main differences are 1) phytocannabinoids are derived from the cannabis plant and endocannabinoids are generated by the body’s ECS; 2) Endocannabinoids are broken down by metabolic enzymes MAGL and FAAH. These metabolic enzymes are not able to break down phytocannabinoids so when they are introduced to the body, the overabundance of cannabinoids create a longer lasting therapeutic effect than those felt from endocannabinoids alone.
- Konieczny, Eileen and Lauren Wilson. Healing with CBD. Ulysses Press, 2018.
- Leinow, Leonard and Juliana Birnbaum. CBD A Patient’s Guide to Medicinal Cannabis. North Atlantic Books, 2017.