The human body is an immensely complex system of biological components, containing over 200 different types of cells that make up our organs, bones, muscles, nerves and beyond. These cells are in constant interaction with one another in order to maintain homeostasis-a state of equilibrium that ensures optimal functionality throughout the body. A good example of this balancing act is our body’s ability to regulate temperature.
One of the more prominent physiological components involved in homeostasis is the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which exists in all vertebrates and regulates a host of functions including sleep, appetite, mood, pain, memory, and more. The term endocannabinoid is derived from endogenous, meaning “from within”, and cannabinoid, a chemical compound that interacts with certain receptors in the brain and other areas.
There are three core components of the ECS: the endocannabinoids themselves, the receptors to which they bind, and the enzymes required to break them down once they’ve served their purpose.
Anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG) are the two main endocannabinoids of interest to researchers. Anandamide has been shown to promote nerve cell generation in the brain and is sometimes referred to as the “bliss molecule” due to its ability to enhance mood and reduce anxiety (1). It’s also known for triggering a “runner’s high”, with reported high concentrations in the blood after strenuous exercise (2). Studies on 2-arachidonoylglycerol show that it can help regulate the circulatory system (3).
One aspect of AEA and 2-AG that makes them difficult to study is their rapid decomposition by enzymes in the ECS. Endocannabinoids are synthesized and broken down as needed, and quite rapidly, whereas other neurotransmitter signals can persist for much longer or be stored for later use.
THC and CBD are the most common examples of phytocannabinoids, or cannabinoids that are produced by the hemp plant. These plant-based cannabinoids interact with the same receptors as endocannabinoids, albeit in different ways. For example, THC and anandamide both bind to cannabinoid receptors, potentially inducing a sense of calm and relaxation. However, THC cannot be broken down by the same enzyme as anandamide, so it lingers for much longer, resulting in the distinctive, persistent high that marijuana is known for.
Endocannabinoids would be useless without the cannabinoid receptors they bind to. The most well-known receptors in the ECS are CB1 and CB2, which have been studied extensively since their discovery in the 1990’s (4). Although found throughout the body, CB1 receptors are most commonly located in the brain and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors reside mostly in the peripheral nervous, digestive and immune systems (5).
Just like endocannabinoids, cannabinoids such as THC and CBD bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, but in different ways and with different resulting effects. CBD is popular due to its widely reported therapeutic effects without the added high, and studies have suggested it to be effective against ailments ranging from anxiety and pain to inflammation and epileptic seizures.
To understand how CBD regulates endocannabinoid activity, one must understand the role of the enzymes that break endocannabinoids down. The enzyme Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH) is responsible for breaking down AEA, while monoacylglycerol acid lipase (MAGL) breaks down 2-AG (6). Rapid decomposition of these enzymes serves to curb any overactivity that may result from heightened endocannabinoid levels.
CBD functions by inhibiting the FAAH enzyme, slowing down AEA’s decomposition and thereby increasing levels of that endocannabinoid. It is speculated that this is what gives CBD its reputation as a treatment for anxiety, as increased AEA levels are associated with a decrease in feelings of anxiousness (1).
It’s noteworthy to point out that because CBD binds with multiple types of receptors, the full range of its effects likely extends beyond the scope of endocannabinoid regulation. Additionally, full-spectrum CBD oil contains a wide range of additional cannabinoids, which have their own health benefits that are currently being investigated.
The endocannabinoid system is still a very new subject of study to scientists, having only been discovered a few decades ago. Despite this, its role as a crucial regulatory component of some of the most important biological processes in our bodies is already widely accepted. As hemp-based products such as CBD oil continue to rise in popularity, more information will come to light, and the remaining mysteries of the endocannabinoid system will be solved.
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