Explaining the Human Endocannabinoid System
First things first, what is the endocannabinoid system? The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex signalling system found in the human body which has a vital role in ensuring the maintenance of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the process of regulating the body’s balance of temperature, mood, and immune system, as well as energy input and output.1 The ECS incorporates three main components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.1 Each of these three elements have a variety of different functions. The ECS is a complicated system and affects and is affected by other systems in the body. It works as a communication system, making sure that the different parts of our body work together in harmony.
Figure 1. A diagram showing the systems that the Human Endocannabinoid System affects.1
Table 1: A table showing the components of the Endocannabinoid system and their roles
Figure 2: A diagram showing the location of the cannabinoid Receptors in the body.1
To better understand this system, we can think of endocannabinoids as tiny messengers that our body naturally produces when we need them. These messengers act like keys that can fit into specific locks, which are the receptors. The key is specific to the lock and the different locks (receptors) can only be unlocked by the correct key. When the correct key and lock match up (when an endocannabinoid binds to a receptor), it sends a signal to initiate a cellular response such as stimulating the release of a neurotransmitter, or signalling its termination. The two most well-known endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).4
So, here’s how it all works… When something in our body is out of balance, such as pain, inflammation, or stress, our body produces endocannabinoids. These endocannabinoids travel to the receptors and bind to them, resulting in a signal being sent to specific cells to restore balance to the body. Once their job is done, enzymes break down the endocannabinoids, and the process starts all over again. 1
Not only does the ECS regulate physiological processes, but it also directly influences mental health and conditions such as anxiety, depression, and emotional behaviour. Additionally, it has a large influence on brain functions such as functioning of the nerves, reward, cognition, learning, memory, and pain sensation. Lastly, it plays a large role in fertility, pregnancy, and pre-and postnatal development.3
Notably, cannabinoids from plants, like Cannabidiol (CBD), can also interact with the ECS, which could potentially provide therapeutic effects.3 By influencing the ECS, cannabinoids can help support the body’s natural processes and promote balance and well-being. Extensive research is currently being done to understand the influence and potential of cannabinoids from plants like CBD to treat diseases which have previously been difficult to treat. These diseases include Alzheimer’s, auto-immune diseases, addiction and Parkinson’s to name a few.
So, what is the takeaway message?
The ECS influences all elements of the body and assists with achieving balance in various systems to live optimally. This includes our metabolism, immune system, central nervous system, hormones, muscles, and gastrointestinal system. Essentially, it acts as the sergeant major keeping all the different systems in place. If the ECS is disrupted in some way, it may result in problems or disease. Cannabinoids from plants offer potential therapeutic benefits for certain diseases as these cannabinoids can also interact with the ECS.
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- Lu HC, Mackie K. 2020. Review of the Endocannabinoid System. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, Aug;6(6). Available here.
- Battista N, Di Tommaso M, Bari M, et al. 2012. The endocannabinoid system: an overview. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 6. Available here.
- Lowe H, Toyang N, Steele B, et al. 2021 The Endocannabinoid System: A potential target for the treatment of various diseases. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 22(17):9472. Available here.
- Basavarajappa BS, Shivakumar M, Joshi V, et al. 2017. Endocannabinoid system in neurodegenerative disorders. Journal of Neurochemistry. 5;142(5):624–48. Available here.