“For decades, scientists and mental health physicians tried to figure out how THC worked on the brain and body,” explained Dr. Paul Song, Chief Medical Officer of Calyx Peak Companies via email. A significant breakthrough came with the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Additional research has since identified endocannabinoids as the cannabinoids produced within our own bodies. The endocannabinoid system regulates and interprets a series of processes in the body, including memory, pain, reproduction, appetite, immune function and many others. The two major endocannabinoids to be identified today are Anandamide and 2-AG, or Arachidonoylglycerol.
In an email to High Times, Katie Stem, CEO of Peak Extracts, gave a brief overview of the endocannabinoid system. “The system consists of two main receptor types: CB1 and CB2. The endocannabinoids are lipid-based neurotransmitters that elicit effects on the entire nervous system, from your brain to your fingertips.”
Stem added, “Although we have much still to learn, it appears that in some situations, the ECS acts as a volume control for a variety of processes and factors, modulating the way our body interprets signals, whether they be pain, hunger, excitement, etc.”
Dr. Song added another significant benefit of the ECS. “Having this biologic basis of the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids has provided more credibility and justification for the medicinal use of cannabis.”
How THC and CBD Interact with the ECS
This may be the part where people understand the endocannabinoid system more than they might have imagined. The reason why a person feels the effects of a high when consuming THC is because it binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, giving an effect throughout the body and head. On the other hand, CBD does not have the same effect on the receptors but does have an effect by activating other receptors in the body.
Stem elaborated on CBD, which she considers the most fascinating of the phytocannabinoids that have an affinity for the ECS, which also includes THC, CBN, 11-Hydroxy THC, THC-V. “[CBD] acts on serotonin receptors and members of the G-Protein coupled receptor family, which are entirely separate from the ECS. There is evidence that it acts as a modulator for the way other cannabinoids act on the ECS, for instance blocking THC activity, or modulating the effects of other ECS stimulants.”
Cannabis is far from the only influencer on the endocannabinoid system. Other drugs interact with it, as well as an array of daily actions and lifestyle choices ranging from sleep and diet, to exercise, sex, and acupuncture therapy. However, it is far from a one size fits all sort of assessment.
Stem explained how each person’s endocannabinoid system is unique. She wrote, “Cannabinoids, or other things that affect the ECS, will have different effects on different people based on their individual physiologies. Thus, there’s no “magic bullet,” and people will experience varied benefits of using cannabis depending on their ECS system.”
Ian Jenkins, CEO of Frelii, a provider of DNA sequencing and genome analysis, wrote how nourishing the ECS can extend well past the two most popular cannabinoids. “Although most of the research is around THC and CBD, just about every cannabinoid can be thought of as nourishing.”
He expanded on his point: “They are ligands that bind to a receptor that create nourishing physiological reactions, even though they themselves don’t necessarily “nourish” the system. It all comes down to homeostasis and health and not necessarily nutrition or nourishment in the classical sense.”
Multiple Misconceptions Remain
Information surrounding the endocannabinoid system continues to develop and expand. As such, misconceptions often arise. Dr. Song mentioned several, including that the ECS did not evolve due to cannabis use. Jenkins agreed with this opinion. “Although there may have been co-evolution, the ECS is an essential part of the human body, and both cannabinoids and terpenes are found in more plants than just cannabis….It is however likely that we have had a long term relationship with all plants that have cannabinoids due to the benefit they have on the body.”
Dr. Song also pointed out that cannabinoids can be found in plants other than cannabis. He also acknowledged the misconceptions about how CBD and THC bind to the body’s receptors. Jenkins discussed a similar point concerning the location of the critical receptors. “Although the highest concentrations of CB1 are in the brain and CB2 are in the peripheral nervous system, both CB1 and CB2 receptors are found throughout the body.”
Dr. Song noted the changing sentiment around cannabis as a prime driver to better understand how the system works in the prevention, development, and treatment of various diseases. He added, “Great work is also being done to develop highly specific synthetic cannabinoids for pharmaceutical purposes, and highly customized cannabis strains are being developed to provide even greater therapeutic response.”
Stem discussed the increase in discussions around ECS deficiency syndrome. She said the syndrome “could be the etiology of a variety of serious illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease.” The belief is that a lack of endogenous cannabinoids can lead to the immune system spiraling out of control. As a 20-plus year sufferer of Crohn’s disease, the developments hit close to home for her.
In addition to the developments, Stem is on a research team that aims to study different methods of consumption and how they are absorbed and metabolized. In time, they hope to begin exploring the different terpene profiles of various strains and how they affect the ECS in concert with the phytocannabinoids.
Jenkins acknowledged improvements in AI, a space his company works closely with. Discussing the broader scope of the ECS space, he said: “Regardless of whether or not you believe the co-evolution theory, there is an incredible interaction between humans and cannabis.” He added, “we have only just begun to unlock the benefits.”
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