The endocannabinoid system (ECS) can make it easier to live well. This is because one of the main functions of the ECS is to help your body maintain homeostasis, the internal “steady state” or balance of body systems. The role of the SEC in humans has been described as ” eat, sleep, relax, forget and protect “.
The endocannabinoid system is a complicated biological system that uses neurotransmitters (chemical messenger systems for communication between the brain and other parts of the nervous system), specialized receptors for those neurotransmitters, and groups of enzymes to help control the levels of neurotransmitters in the body. It turns out to be one of the most important systems for maintaining human health.
But what is homeostasis? The word comes from two Greek words meaning “equal” and “stable”: homeostasis is the processes used by the body to maintain equilibrium, balance and a “steady state”. A reasonable analogy is the common see-saw on the playground: the see-saw of the body wants to remain in balance and will “add” or “subtract” from one end to the other to maintain that balance.
Homeostasis is complex, partly because there are so many physiological systems competing for the same factors to “add” or “subtract,” partly because many of these must coexist, and partly because there are so many environmental stressors in various systems: and the system must respond quickly and accurately to these stressors.
Think of the “fight or flight” response, which is part of the overall system for maintaining homeostasis. If that was not properly controlled, you may be constantly in “fight” mode or constantly in “flight” mode!
ECS was discovered by scientists studying the effects of the cannabis plant. There may be some distant evolutionary relationship, but SEC works with or without plant cannabinoids.
Still eager to learn more? Let’s start with our Pet Shop Joy CBD guide for the ECS:
The ABC of ECS
The Cannabis plant probably evolved to produce cannabinoids to regulate the plant’s defense mechanisms and normal plant physiology. We used to think that Cannabis was the only plant that produced cannabinoids. However, we now know that other plants produce cannabinoid-like substances, technically known as cannabimimetics. These include echinacea, kava kava, flaxseed and the cacao (chocolate) plant.
The discovery of cannabinoids helped us discover an important part of our physiology: the system known as ECS. Here is a brief history:
- In 1964, an Israeli scientist, Raphael Mechoulam, isolated and identified THC.
- In 1988, two American scientists, Allyn Howlett and William Devane, found receptors for cannabinoids in the brains of rats. To their surprise, the rat brain was found to have more cannabinoid receptors than any other type of receptor. This first receptor discovered was named CB1.
- In the early 1990s, a second receptor was discovered and named CB2.
- Since then, several other cannabinoid-binding receptors have been described, but their relationship to CB1 and CB2 is unclear; nor is it clear that their primary function is to bind endocannabinoids.
Humans do not manufacture cannabinoids. In contrast, our cannabinoid receptors bind mainly to two different substances: anandamide (N-arachidonoylethanolamine (AEA)) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2AG). AEA and 2AG bind to CB receptors and help regulate a wide variety of physical and biochemical functions, all regulated by homeostatic mechanisms and processes. Chemically and functionally, endocannabinoids are significantly different from phytocannabinoids (plant cannabinoids).
CB1 and CB2 receptors
Think of the receptors as a lock and the endocannabinoids AEA and 2AG as the keys that fit the lock. Endocannabinoids are “made” for the locks (receptors). Other substances that can bind to these receptors simply fit into the locks or nearly fit into the locks.
CB1 receptors are found primarily in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), but are also found throughout the body. CB1 receptors are involved in the maintenance of homeostasis in the musculoskeletal system, with the cognitive functions of the brain, with the perception and interpretation of internal and external stimuli, and with internal defense mechanisms.
CB2 receptors are found primarily outside the brain and are also involved in maintaining homeostasis in almost all body systems. CB2 receptors are also found in the brain and spinal cord, but not as many. CB2 receptors, in general, are more involved in the perception and interpretation of stimuli and in the maintenance of systemic (whole body) homeostasis.
There are two main endocannabinoids: AEA and 2-AG, although more are known and even more are likely to be described in the future. These endocannabinoids are natural substances, derived from fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
They bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors, which then produce a chain of biochemical events that result in specific effects, depending on the body system affected. Endocannabinoids are then degraded at different rates by enzymes. This is the body’s way of regulating the levels of endocannabinoids available. The two main enzymes that degrade the two main endocannabinoids are:
- Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down AEA
- monoacylglycerol acid lipase (MAG lipase), which breaks down 2AG
Let’s go into some more details about AEA and 2AG.
Anandamide or AEA
Anandamide is sometimes called the “happiness molecule”. It comes from the Sanskrit word “ananda”, which means inner bliss. It is derived from an omega-6 essential fatty acid, arachidonic acid. It binds mainly to CB1 receptors, with weaker binding to CB2 receptors.
Any type of external or internal stress tends to increase AEA levels in the body. In fact, one of the reasons chocolate is a comfort food for so many people is that it naturally contains EAA.
2-arachidonoylglycerol or 2-AG
2-Arachidonoylglycerol or 2-AG is the second most common endocannabinoid; it appears to be associated with “down-regulation” of the effects of external stimuli. It is also involved with emotional expression and energetic balance. It binds better to CB1 receptors than to CB2 receptors, but is also reported to bind to several other types of receptors.
Cannabinoid interactions and the SEC
Why focus on ECS, AEA and 2AG enzymes and CB1 and CB2 receptors? The point is that the ECS is an important regulatory system for maintaining physical, emotional and mental health. When we begin to see how the ECS works, that can provide us with valuable clues to see how other substances can be used to support the homeostatic functions of the ECS.
Can the ECS be “boosted”?
Can you drive or support your own personal ECS?
Yes, you can. Here’s how:
- Diet. If you eat right, your diet should provide you with all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients you need to be healthy and strong. If you’re not giving your body everything it needs, you could be in trouble. The ECS uses omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to build AEA, 2-AG and CB receptors. Since omega-6 fatty acids are readily available in foods, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids can improve the availability of these components of the ESA.
- Make certain lifestyle choices. Avoiding alcohol can improve SEC status because high alcohol consumption has been shown to reduce CB receptor levels and may increase the risk of addiction. Exercise is a tool to manage stress and, naturally, can increase endocannabinoid levels.
Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency: can it explain some medical conditions?
As a general rule, if there is a biological system, there may be some deficit or deficiency in that system. Alternatively, conditions are likely to be encountered in which that system is hyperactive. This is one of the areas where homeostasis may be important in balancing both hyperactivity and underactivity of a system.
The same is true for the ECS.
There are four basic ways in which a problem in the ECS can result in a deficiency:
- A defect in the number or function of the receptors.
- The degradation of endocannabinoids is too fast, so endocannabinoids do not bind effectively to receptors.
- A defect in endocannabinoid production.
- A combination of any of the above.
How do cannabinoids affect the SEC?
Cannabinoids can bind directly to cannabinoid receptors; we know this because this is how endocannabinoids were discovered.
The details of binding to various receptors are currently under study worldwide. The link can be compared to a “lock and key” system, but the lock and key analogy only goes so far. Receptors are molecules in three dimensions. Ligands, such as AEA, 2-AG and other substances, can fit directly into the “pockets” created by the receptor.
Another group of substances can bind to other areas of the receptor and change the shape of the bags. In that way, they change the way natural endocannabinoids interact with receptors, which in turn changes the effects of AEA, 2-AG and THC.
Another complicating factor is that the substances may also work indirectly by slowing down the enzymes needed to break down AEA and 2AG. In effect, this leaves you with higher levels of both endocannabinoids. That may mean that the effects of endocannabinoids last longer than in other conditions.
An increasing number of studies have reported a variety of effects of cannabinoids as a general class of phytochemicals.
There is still much to learn about the ECS, and much to learn about the potential effects of a variety of substances that can affect the ECS.