What is the ECS?

Talking about Hemp, CBD, or cannabis at large, is incomplete without talking about the ECS. By now we know it by our hearts that the THC and CBD in the cannabis plants interact with the ECS in the human body.

But do we really know what the ECS is? How does it work? And what exactly does it do?

Introduction

The Endocannabinoid System is a biological system in the human body. Though still under preliminary research, the system plays an imperative role in regulating several physiological and cognitive processes. These include appetite, mood, memory, fertility, pregnancy etc.

Funny how the ECS never made it to the list of 11 major organ systems we were all taught in school!

Moving on, the endocannabinoid system, in the simplest terms, helps in fine-tuning most of our vital physiological functions. It aids in modulating the regulation of homeostasis across all major body systems ensuring that all the systems work in good harmony with each other.

What does endocannabinoid mean?

The word endocannabinoid is the sum of

endo (meaning endogeneous, i.e. having an internal cause or origin), and

cannabinoid (meaning any group of closely related compounds which include cannabinol and the active constituents of cannabis).

That is to say, endocannabinoids are cannabis-like substances that naturally occur inside the human body.

What is the ECS made of?

The endocannabinoid system is made up of 3 components:

  • Endocannabinoids
    The messengers of the endocannabinoid system. They are produced throughout our body. The two key endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. The former is involved in appetite, memory, and pregnancy. The latter plays an imperative role in our emotional state and maintaining cardiovascular health.

Fun Fact: Anandamide gets its name from the Sanskrit word anada meaning ‘bliss’.

  • Cannabinoid Receptors
    Receptors with which cannabinoids and endocannabinoids bond with. These are found in both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.
  • Enzymes
    These help break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids

The ECS is a natural, and crucial, part of the human body. It is equivalent to the electronics in a car or phone that work to monitor and maintain important levels and functions in your body.

Cannabinoid receptors in the human body

CB1

present in the central nervous system (CNS). CB1 receptors are essential for the healthy functioning of the brain. Depending on their location in the brain, they help moderate memory, mood, motor function, and/or one’s perception of pain. It is the CB1 receptors that cause the high in the brain when we smoke marijuana.

CB2

present in the peripheral nervous system, the digestive system, and the specialised cells in the immune system. CB2 receptors help in moderating inflammation and our immune response to pathogens.

Our body activates the endocannabinoid system with precision so as to impact only what it needs to. Once the endocannabinoids have brought things into balance, specific enzymes come along to break them down. This prevents them from upsetting the balance in the opposite direction.

When something operates outside of its right range, our body activates the ECS to help correct it. It does so through the cannabinoid receptors found in select tissues.

How was the endocannabinoid system discovered?

The discovery of the endocannabinoid system was a result of the discovery of CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body when scientists were trying to understand the effects of cannabis on the human body. Scientists managed to isolate numerous phytochemicals (called phytocannabinoids) from the cannabis plants.

In the attempt of uncovering the metabolic pathways of phyto-cannabinoids and endocannabinoids, scientists discovered an unknown molecular signalling system within the human body involved in manufacturing and using the body’s own form of cannabinoids. This system was named the Endocannabinoid System.

Tit-bits About the Endocannabinoid System

  • All animals have an endocannabinoid system
    All vertebrates and invertebrates are known to have an ECS. Sea-squirts, an animal which evolved over 600 million years ago, are the most primitive animal found to express cannabinoid receptors.
  • Endocannabinoid Receptors are the most plentiful neuro-modulatory receptors in the body
    It is believed that the total number of endocannabinoid receptors in the body is greater than all other neuro-modulatory receptors found in the body combined.
  • Exercise and diet help boost the ECS
    Scientific studies suggest that prolonged aerobic exercise can increase the level of anandamide (the feel good endocannabinoid). Where diet is concerned, increasing your intake of omega 3 helps support the endocannabinoid brain signalling.
  • ECS plays a crucial role in many diseases
    Scientists observe that in a number of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, neurodegenerative disorders, and cancer, the ECS activity of the human body changes. These findings suggest that the ECS may be an efficate target for restoring balance in the body and stimulating good health.

Can I have Endocannabinoid System Deficiency?

As medical science continues to learn more about the ECS, it discovers numerous health conditions that may be related to the dysregulation of the system. This condition of dysregulation is named Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD). Some of the conditions where CECD plays a crucial role are fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraine.

How does ECS work?

The endocannabinoid system is alike the other signalling systems in the body. The neurons in the body communicate with each other and the rest of the body through chemical messages. Typically, neurotransmitters are released from a neuron (the presynaptic cell), travel across the synapse, and attach themselves to specific receptors (the postsynaptic cell). This puts the receiving neuron into action and triggers a set of events allowing the messages to be passed along.

The ECS works in a backward direction. The postsynaptic neuron is activated first causing the cannabinoids (i.e. the messengers of the ECS) to be produced on demand from the fat cells already present in the neuron. These are then released from the postsynaptic neuron and travel backward to the presynaptic neuron attaching to cannabinoid receptors.

What does this mean?

Cannabinoids act on presynaptic cells. That is to say, they can control what happens when the cells are activated. They limit the amount of neurotransmitter to be released thus affecting the way messages are sent, received, and processed.

How does the ECS interact with the compounds in Cannabis?

Now, coming to the point we have memorised. When THC enters the human body, it quickly attaches to the cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain and the body thus overwhelming the endocannabinoid system. This interferes with the functioning of the natural cannabinoids throwing the system off-balance thus causing people to get high.

Some endocannabinoid receptors interact well, but indirectly, with CBD. This is the prime reason why CBD does not have intoxicating effects on the body. CBD does not directly trigger the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Instead, it modifies the receptors’ ability to bind with cannabinoids.

What lies ahead?

Humans are still learning new things about the endocannabinoid system. The discovery of the ECS is less than 30 years ago which is why the research and studies on it are still budding. Different studies on the ECS explore its relation to different aspects of the human body. But one major takeaway that can be extracted in common from all the studies is that it is awfully easy for the human body to throw the endocannabinoid system off balance. Exercise, diet, stress levels—are all factors that significantly influence the ECS.

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