The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is a complex cell-signaling system identified in the early 1990s by researchers exploring Δ-9-THC ((–)-trans-Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol; THC). The ECS exists and is active in your body even if you don’t use cannabis and plays a crucial role in providing homeostatic balance to the nervous system and immune system.
Homeostasis is your body’s efforts to keep your internal environment stable and optimal. It does this by modulating neurotransmitter release and affecting pathways throughout the body. This means that when something in your body is not operating properly or optimally, the ECS is activated to help correct it.
The system is pervasive in mammalian species and has a presence in nearly all animals. The biological conservation of this system indicates its importance. The study of this system in both human and veterinary medicine has opened the door to novel approaches targeting pain management, cancer therapeutics, modulation of neurological disorders, stress reduction, anxiety management, and inflammatory diseases.
How Does it Work?
The ECS involves three core components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.
So far, scientists have discovered two types of cannabinoid receptors:
- CB1: Predominantly in the central nervous system. Anatomical locations for CB1 receptors include blood vessels, liver, lungs, digestive system, and far cells.
- CB2: Predominantly in the peripheral nervous system (nerves in your extremities) as well as the immune system, where they modulate a healthy response to inflammation.
Endocannabinoids (eCBs) are endogenous ligands, or molecules produced internally, which bind to the receptors. There are two known eCBs:
- Anandamide (AEA)
- 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG)
Unlike other neurotransmitters, endocannabinoids are not stored before ECS activation; instead, they are synthesized as needed, and therefore the level of eCBs in your body can vary.
Once the eCBs have carried out their function, enzymes break them down. The two enzymes responsible for this are:
- Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down AEA
- Monoacylglycerol Acid Lipase (MAGL), which typically break down 2-AG
- Anxiety – It has been theorized that chronic stress and anxiety result partly from deficiencies in eCB signaling, as diminished circulating levels of eCBs have been correlated to anxiety-like behaviors. It is known that chronic environmental stress will down-regulate CB1 receptors and reduce levels of AEA.
- Inflammation – Inflammation is the causal root of many diseases and health conditions. The immune system, in part, is regulated by the ECS. Cells of the immune system have been found to have the cannabinoid receptor CB2 present on their cell membrane, which has a vital role in up-regulating anti-inflammatory pathways.
- Pain – eCBs modulate the coinduction of pain signals by reducing neural signals of pain and by reducing inflammation by activating the receptors.
- Neurodegenerative Conditions – eCBs have been shown to have neuroprotective properties, possessing the ability to reduce neuroinflammation and promote neurogenesis
Other Processes Linked to the ECS include: