What is the Endocannabinoid System?
In 1964, researchers in Israel discovered the therapeutically active substances in cannabis that have come to be called cannabinoids and isolated the most popular and possibly effective cannabinoid, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). More than 20 years later, in 1988, researchers identified the human body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Both cannabis plants and people have chemical compounds in our systems called cannabinoids. In humans, they’re called endocannabinoids. In plants, they’re called phytocannabinoids.
Endocannabinoids are the special molecules naturally produced in the human body that are closely related to proper functioning of the immune system and nervous system, and they are mimicked by the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Simply put: cannabis phytocannabinoids imitate endocannabinoids. Cannabinoids fit perfectly into specialized receptors found throughout the nervous and immune systems, serving to enhance, or improve upon, the body’s own ability to maintain homeostasis (balance) and health.
The Role of Receptors
The ECS is a complex network of cannabinoid receptors, which are present on the surface of cells in the central nervous system.
Receptors respond to cannabinoids both naturally occurring in the body and those derived from the cannabis plant – hence their name. There are currently two identified cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2.
CB1 receptors are located throughout the brain and central nervous system, as well as the kidneys, liver, lungs, digestive tract, and even the eyes. Revealingly, these receptors outnumber those for opiates by a wide margin (possibly as high as 10 to 1). The placement of CB1 receptors is also why overdoses on cannabis are impossible – because these receptors are not present in the basal regions of the brain that are responsible for vital functions, such as heart and respiratory function, overdoses due solely to cannabis use simply do not occur.
CB2 receptors are primarily found in the peripheral organs, in particular tissues associated with the immune system, including the tonsils, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow.
Cannabinoids are neurotransmitters or messengers. Receptors receive the messages and send them on to the brain. The relationship between cannabinoids and receptors is often described as a lock and key; only certain cannabinoids and receptors interact to unlock a reaction in the brain.
The Effect of Cannabis
The ECS response to cannabis is completely individual. When cannabis is consumed, cannabinoids like THC and CBD can interact with our receptor sites like our own endocannabinoids do. It is because many of those receptor sites are located in the central nervous system that cannabis is likely to produce changes to our cognitive and/or physical states.
Everyone’s physiological makeup is different, and the ECS receptor site locations and the number of sites can vary from person to person. That is why the same strain of cannabis can affect people differently. Additional factors that contribute to the potential differences in effect can also include the genetics, sex, current health, personality and age of the individual.
Being aware of this unique interaction between cannabis and the human body is helpful in understanding how to make the right choice for you.
Consider this information along with the method and amount of consumption, and the levels of THC and CBD that are in a strain.
If you’re new to consuming cannabis, consider starting at very low THC and CBD levels as you learn how your body responds.