Everything You Need to Know About the Endocannabinoid System
It was not until 1997 that the fine folks who run Mirriam-Webster added the word endocannabinoid to their dictionary, so you can be forgiven if this six-syllable scientific term isn’t one you remember from biology class.
Or hell, medical school.
“Because of the whole federal situation, we don’t learn anything about cannabis in medical school,” said Clifton S. Otto, MD, a veteran opthamologist and cannabinoid medical specialist certified by the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine. “I never heard the term endocannabinoid system when I was in medical school."
“So then we have to go back to learn about it ourselves. And there’s this fear that if you somehow help patients learn about this you’ll jeopardize your medical license.”
Even for docs, there’s a lot to learn - and then much to share. Dr. Otto (who is not financially affiliated with Dad Grass) said knowledgeable doctors who work in traditional offices where patient visits span just a half-hour can struggle to convey all the information relevant for patients interested in cannabis: state laws, information about potential drug interactions, products in the marketplace, how to select them, and which doses might be appropriate.
Indeed, entire fields of study surround the cannabis sativa plant, its components, and the products made from these plants. We’re talking biology, medicine, agriculture, and botany. It’s a lot. It’s nerdy. But we’re here to break it down for ya.
Because there’s something about geeking out on the endocannabinoid system and refreshing your know-how about the value of the many cannabinoids and organic goodness the cannabis sativa plant has to offer that’ll only make the next toke of your CBD joint that much more blissful.
What Is the Endocannabinoid System?
So. Let’s take a deep inhalation and consider our endocannabinoid system, or ECS. Yes, you have an endocannabinoid system. And so does your dog, Fido. An actual system of the body. Named after cannabinoids.
Humans and other mammals have a series of receptors in the nervous system that respond to both internal and external stimuli in a way that helps keep the body in balance, in homeostasis. These receptors are located all around the body, even in the brain. Working with the body’s internal cannabinoids, the ECS impacts mood, appetite, inflammation, memory, and more.
“The endocannabinoid system is the largest neurotransmitter system in the human body,” said Dr. David Bearman, a medical doctor who is the Vice President of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine. He has written two books on cannabinoids.
What Does the Endocannabinoid System Do?
“It has at least three major functions. One of its major functions is homeostasis, which means making sure that all of the body’s systems are humming along the way they’re supposed to.
Too hot outside? The endocannabinoid system is involved in registering sweltering temperatures and sparking the part of the body’s response – like sweat, for example. It responds to stress and pain as well as pleasurable stimuli, such as singing and dancing.
The body’s system of receptors and endocannabinoids also modulates the speed of neurotransmission in the body, said Dr. Bearman. He has no financial relationship to Dad Grass but has been studying cannabis for more than 20 years.
Interestingly, it does this by way of driving backwards. Instead of following the usual path for chemical synaptic signaling - a path along which neurotransmitters move from presynaptic neuron to postsynaptic neuron and then attach to a receptor - endocannabinoids travel in the opposite direction. By driving backward, endocannabinoids can slow down neurotransmission.
This backward flow is known as retrograde inhibition, and it’s super exciting for researchers.
“Retrograde inhibition, why is this important? The reason this is important is that there are a number of pathological conditions associated with very rapid neurotransmission,” Dr. Bearman said. “Epilepsy, for example, is a movement disorder with muscles twitching uncontrollably. Cannabis - both CBD and THC - has a benefit when dealing with epilepsy. The same thing is true of migraines; a migraine is an uncontrolled or excessive amount of neurotransmission.”
Cannabinoids: How CBD, CBG, THC, 2AG and All Those Other Acronyms Work
For as long as the human body has been around to sing and dance, the endocannabinoid system has existed. But researchers didn’t discover and name it until the 1990s when studying the structure of THC, or Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. (Uh, yeah, we copy/pasted that one).
According to a report in the British Journal of Pharmacology, the endocannabinoid system was discovered while researchers were examining the way THC acts inside the body. Cannabinoid Receptor 1, or CB1, was found when researchers were looking for the biological target of THC. Which is to say, they were looking for where THC goes in the body and how it acts once there.
While THC attaches to the CB1 receptors, other cannabinoids - like CBD and CBG - act slightly differently within the body, often interplaying in complimentary ways.
So basically, when studying THC itself, researchers began to learn about how cannabinoids works within the body - and discovered the body has an entire system of CB1 and CB2 receptors. This system uses its own cannabinoids. Yes: humans have our own cannabinoids, among them the neurotransmitters known as anandamide and 2-arachidonylglycerol, or 2AG (again, copy/paste).
Anandamide, known as the bliss molecule, and is responsible for runner’s high. Check it out. Yep – it isn’t endorphins; it’s an endocannabinoid. Figures. All of the 100+ cannabinoids and other organic material – like terpenes – in cannabis sativa plants can contribute to how it acts in the body and the way it interacts with the body’s own endocannabinoids.
Hemp Flower: The Top Source of Cannabinoids
The greatest concentration of cannabinoids in the cannabis sativa plant can be found in its flowers, or bud. That’s why Dad Grass products stem from the hemp flower. This female part of the plant is fertile ground for pollination. The bud or flower of the plant is also littered with a bunch of trichomes, said Liz Rogan, the executive director of the AACM and botanist with extensive field work experience.
“The bud is where the plant has its highest expression of the trichomes which contain cannabinoids,” she said. “Trichomes are really small; the buds are coated in it . They make it look sticky or shiny, like crystals. It’s where the full known value of the plant is – at least what’s known right now.”
When It Comes to Cannabinoids, Freshness Matters
The age of each cannabis plant at the time it is harvested can play a role in the concentration of various cannabinoids. Some less-familiar cannabinoids to get hip to:
- CBN: Think older plants. This cannabinoid is a degradation of THC, or old THC. It can make people feel tired.
- CBG: Think younger plants. This cannabinoid is a potentiator for THC, a younger version of THC. It works well with CBD to benefit the immune system.
“Cannabinoids are all similar but they have different therapeutic applications,” said Dr. Bearman. “One of the things that interests me about CBG is that it could be anti-cancer. There does seem to be some research suggesting this.”
Both Dr. Bearman and Rogan said more studies are needed for greater certainty about the way cannabinoids work within the endocannabinoid system.