What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex system of cell-signaling which was first identified in the early 1990s. It is present in all vertebrates. Mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish all have an ECS. The ECS is present in nearly every system of the body. It is composed of chemical messengers known as endocannabinoids. The ECS is also comprised of the enzymes which manufacture and break down endocannabinoids. The third component of the ECS are the receptors through which the endocannabinoids exert their influence on our bodies. Endocannabinoids have a retrograde effect in the central nervous system (CNS) from the post-synaptic to the pre-synaptic nerve cell. This enables the ECS to act as, what some might call, a “master regulator.”
The main function of the ECS is to maintain biologic harmony (homeostasis) within the body in response to environmental and internal insults or changes. Thus, the endocannabinoid system is involved in a wide variety of processes including: pain, mood, memory, sleep, appetite, stress, immune function, and metabolism.
There are two main ECS receptors (CB1 and CB2) which are both located throughout the body. The CB1 receptors are located mostly within the CNS including the brain and spinal cord and less densely elsewhere. On the other hand, CB2 receptors are mostly located in the skin and immune system with lower concentrations in the CNS.
Likewise, there are two key endocannabinoids which have been identified: anandamide and 2-archidonyl glycerol (2-AG). Research has shown that anandamide interacts more with CB2 receptors in the immune system. Whereas, 2-AG is the main endocannabinoid affecting CB1 receptors in the CNS. However, both endocannabinoids interact with both receptor types to some degree.
A characteristic feature of the ECS is that the endocannabinoids are produced “on demand” by their respective enzymes. Production of endocannabinoids is in response to internal or environmental changes. Once anandamide and 2-AG interact with their receptors, they are rapidly broken down in order to restore homeostasis.
Endocannabinoids are chemically similar to cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and other cannabinoids of the cannabis plant. Scientists have realized cannabis exerts much of its effects by mimicking the endocannabinoids our bodies make.
The endocannabinoid system may be considered the fundamental operating system in the human body. Its versatile functions and widespread locations throughout the body support its promising potential as a target in developing treatments for a great number of diseases.
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