The Human Endocannabinoid System – A Simple Guide
Ever wonder why natural supplements affect you the way they do? Why does one supplement boost your focus when another makes you feel relaxed? Well, it has to do with the way a supplement interacts with your brain and body.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is no different. While researchers are still uncovering the exact method by which CBD helps us in so many different ways, one thing is clear: CBD interacts with the body’s natural Endocannabinoid System (ECS). And the ECS regulates a ton of normal processes, even when you aren’t using CBD.
Curious to learn more about the ECS and what it does for you every day? Dive into this guide for answers to all your questions about why CBD makes you feel the way it does.
How Does the ECS Work?
The ECS is a complex system found in humans and all other vertebrates (animals with backbones). It’s mostly made up of receptors and the compounds that bind to those receptors. Scientists call these receptors CB1 and CB2. And they named the natural compounds that interact with CB1 and CB2 Anandamide (AEA) and 2-AG.
CB1 and CB2 serve different functions in your body. So it makes sense that the body produces these receptors in differing amounts depending on the location.
For example, CB1 receptors are found in both the peripheral (nerves) and central (brain and spinal cord) nervous systems. And in fact, CB1 receptors are the most common receptors in the brain. It’s no wonder, then, that they play a pretty big role in brain function.
CB2 receptors, on the other hand, live in the peripheral nervous system. You will find a few CB2 receptors in the brain and spinal cord. But they’re much more abundant elsewhere, especially in immune system cells.
While it’s more common for AEA and 2-AG to bind to ECS receptors, other compounds can bind there, too.
What are we talking about? Why, CBD and other natural compounds from hemp plants, of course!
Endocannabinoids vs Phytocannabinoids
A cannabinoid is a natural compound that can interact with the ECS. Usually, these substances have direct effects on CB1 and CB2. In other cases, they act more indirectly.
Regardless of how a cannabinoid acts on the ECS, it will be either an endocannabinoid (made in the human body) or a phytocannabinoid (made by plants).
Remember AEA and 2-AG? You know, the compounds found inside your body that bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors? These are endocannabinoids.
Researchers are looking into the possibility of the existence of another endocannabinoids. But so far, we’re only certain about 2-AG and AEA.
2-AG and AEA both bind to CB1 and CB2. But they do so at different rates. AEA likes to interact with CB1 much more than does 2-AG while CB2 almost exclusively responds to 2-AG.
Unlike endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids aren’t found in the human body. Instead, they’re sourced from plants like hemp.
There are over 120 known phytocannabinoids in cannabis (that’s the plant of which hemp is one variety). You may recognize two of them: CBD and THC (tetra-hydrocannabinol). Like AEA and 2-AG (both endocannabinoids), CBD and THC interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors of the ECS.
THC is attracted to CB1 and CB2. In fact, its interaction with CB1 receptors in the brain may be why THC makes you feel high. Meanwhile, THC and CB2 receptors could be responsible for some of the potential benefits of medical marijuana.
To learn how CBD affects ECS receptors, check out our section on How CBD Interacts with the ECS below.
What are the Functions of the ECS?
In the brain, the ECS supports a wide variety of functions. As we mentioned before, that’s because CB1 receptors are the most abundant receptors found throughout the brain. Brain functions the ECS regulates include:
• Learning and memory
But that’s not all.
ECS receptors are also present in the liver, cardiovascular system, skeletal muscles, gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and reproductive system. In short, they’re in a lot of places in your body!
How CBD Interacts with the ECS
Exactly how CBD affects the ECS is still up for debate. But one thing is certain: CBD doesn’t make you feel high like THC does. Instead, it helps with sleep, stress, and feeling more balanced – all without changing your state of mind.
Until research uncovers the rest of the story about CBD and the ECS, here are some of the most popular theories out there today.
CBD and CB1 Receptors
Even though CBD influences CB1 receptors in the brain, it won’t get you high. How is this possible? Some point to the possibility that THC activates CB1 receptors while CBD may block the activation of CB1 receptors.
CBD and CB2 Receptors
It’s currently unknown how CBD interacts with CB2 receptors but there may be some interaction. Some researchers have proposed that CBD makes it either more difficult or easier for other compounds to activate CB2. But others propose more indirect mechanisms. More research is needed to find out what’s going on exactly.
Endocannabinoid Deficiency is a theory about what happens when the ECS stops working properly or doesn’t get enough cannabinoids to function properly. According to scientists who support this theory, every person has a specific volume of endocannabinoids (AEA and 2-AG).
When these volumes decrease (i.e. if the body produces too few endocannabinoids or doesn’t take in enough phytocannabinoids), a person may feel different.
Full transparency: Endocannabinoid Deficiency is a fascinating scientific theory that could be incredible beneficial but it’s only in the early stages of being understood. More research is hopefully emerging in the coming years to help more people.
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