The endocannabinoid system is one of the largest nervous system’s in our bodies, serving the important job of maintaining our health and wellbeing as it regulates key parts of our body. The endocannabinoid system maintains balance within our bodies and can be found in all vertebrate species.

There are three main components of the endocannabinoid system: cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids and metabolic enzymes. Cannabinoid receptors sit on the surface of cells, paying attention to conditions outside of the cell. If there are any changes, they will transmit the information about the change to within the cell, jumpstarting the appropriate cellular response.

Our two main endocannabinoid receptors are CB1 and CB2. These are not the only receptors, but they were the first and best studied. CB1 receptors are one of the most abundant receptors in the brain. These receptors interact with THC, causing the ‘high’ some experience. CB2 receptors are more abundant outside of the nervous system in places such as the immune system. However, both receptor types can be found all over the body.

Endocannabinoids are molecules that, alike THC, bind to and activate our CB1 and CB2 receptors. Unlike cannabinoids such as THC, endocannabinoids are produced within the body naturally. We have two major
endocannabinoids; Anandamide and 2-AG. These endocannabinoids are created from fat-like molecules within cell membranes, are synthesized on demand and used exactly when needed, rather than stored for later use.

Metabolic enzymes are the third piece to the ‘endocannabinoid triad’. The two main metabolic enzymes are ‘FAAH’, which breaks down Anandamide and ‘MAGL’ which breaks down 2-AG. These enzymes ensure that endocannabinoids get used right when they are needed and not any longer. This endocannabinoid triad can be found within almost every major system within the body. When something internally is out of place, the endocannabinoid system is triggered to bring back bodily balance.

The Endocannabinoid System and Cannabis

Plant cannabinoids, also known as phytocannabinoids,are what we call the chemical compounds commonly known as THC and CBD, as well as all the other minor cannabinoids within the cannabis plant. THC interacts with the endocannabinoid system just as our natural anandamide does, aside from the fact that the ‘FAAH’ enzyme cannot break THC down. This causes the ‘high’ we otherwise would not feel with anandamide as it gets broken down as quickly as it is used. Just as anandamide, THC affects our CB1 receptors.

While plant cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids) activate the same receptors as endocannabinoids, they also activate other receptor types allowing for anandamide and THC to work internally very different from each other. Molecules like cannabinoids and other neurotransmitters rarely react with a single receptor type. CBD illustrates this perfectly, as it interacts with numerous brain receptors. CBD also notably inhibits the ‘FAAH’ enzyme, allowing for natural anandamide levels to increase.

Overall the endocannabinoid system, with or without THC and CBD, plays a huge role in our overall health and wellbeing, and patients who qualify can clearly benefit from therapeutic use of medicinal cannabis as it can help bring back balance to one of our largest nervous systems.