What is the endocannabinoid system?
In 1964, researchers in Israel discovered the therapeutically active substances in cannabis that have come to be called cannabinoids and isolated the most popular and possibly effective cannabinoid, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). More than 20 years later, in 1988, researchers identified the human body’s endocannabinoid system.
Endocannabinoids are the special molecules naturally produced in the human body that are closely related to the proper functioning of the immune system and nervous system and that are mimicked by the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids contained in cannabis, referred to as phytocannabinoids, simply imitate endocannabinoids. Cannabinoids fit perfectly into specialized receptors found throughout the nervous and immune systems, serving to enhance, or improve upon, the body’s own ability to maintain homeostasis (balance) and health.
The role of receptors
Research since the discovery of the endocannabinoid system has led to the identification of specialized receptors in the body. Knowledge of these receptors, called CB1 and CB2, has greatly enhanced the overall knowledge of how cannabinoids synergistically interact with other cannabinoids and endocannabinoids to produce sometimes profound medical effects. An understanding of these receptors also allows for the production of synthetic cannabinoids and specialized extracts that best take advantage of the function of these receptors.
CB1 receptors are located throughout the brain and central nervous system, as well as the kidneys, liver, lungs, digestive tract, and even the eyes. Revealingly, these receptors outnumber those for opiates by a wide margin (possibly as high as 10 to 1). The placement of CB1 receptors is also why overdoses on cannabis are impossible – because these receptors are not present in the basal regions of the brain that are responsible for vital functions, such as heart and respiratory function, overdoses due solely to cannabis use simply do not occur.
CB2 receptors are primarily found in the peripheral organs, in particular tissues associated with the immune system, including the tonsils, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow.
An expert’s explanation
Dr. Ethan Russo, a prominent and well-published cannabinoid researcher, has written a detailed description of the endocannabinoid system and its efficacy for human health:
“The analgesic and palliative effects of cannabis and cannabinoid preparation have been amply reported over the past generation…. In essence, the effects result from a combination of receptor and non-receptor mediated mechanisms. THC and other cannabinoids exert many actions through cannabinoid receptors, G-protein coupled membrane receptors that are extremely densely represented in central, spinal, and peripheral nociceptive pathways.
“Endogenous cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) even regulate integrative pain structures such as the periaqueductal gray matter. The endocannabinoid system also interacts in numerous ways with the endogenous opioid and vanillio systems that can modulate analgesia and with a myriad of other neurotransmitter systems such as the serotonergic, dopaminergic, glutamatergic, etc, pertinent to pain. The current author has suggested that a clinical endocannabinoid deficiency may underlie the pathogenesis of migraine, fibromyalgia, idiopathic bowel syndrome, and numerous other painful conditions that defy modern pathophysiological explanation or adequate treatment.”
Dr. Ethan Russo
– Cannabinoid Researcher