The Endocannabinoid System
An appropriately titled 2013 survey, “Ignorance Is Not Bliss,” revealed that only 13 percent of U.S. medical schools teach the endocannabinoid system to future doctors. With more and more patients are turning to it for relief, there’s certainly a need to be familiar with the endocannabinoid system.
The human endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a naturally-occurring network of receptors that is spread throughout the entire body. This system controls some of our most vital life functions, including our immune system, memory, appetite, sleep pattern, mood, and pain sensation.
The three main components of the endocannabinoid system are as follows:
- Cannabinoid Receptors – found on the surface of cells
- Endocannabinoids – small molecules that activate cannabinoid receptors
- Metabolic Enzymes – break down endocannabinoids after they are used
There are currently two known major cannabinoid receptors; CB1 and CB2. Though they’re certainly not the only cannabinoid receptors, they were the first discovered and therefore remain the most-studied.
Unlike THC, endocannabinoids are naturally produced by cells within the human body. Like the plant cannabinoid THC, they are molecules that bind to and activate cannabinoid receptors.
The final piece of the endocannabinoid puzzle is comprised of the metabolic enzymes that quickly destroy endocannabinoids as soon as they are used. The enzymes responsible for this rapid breakdown are FAAH and MAGL. Their work ensures that endocannabinoids are used efficiently. This differentiates endocannabinoids from other molecular signals (such as hormones or classical neurotransmitters) which can persist for several seconds or minutes, or be stored for later use.
Of course, this is only a high-level overview of the human endocannabinoid system. Unfortunately, cannabis research is extremely limited – due to its federally illegal status – which prohibits government institutions (like the FDA) from conducting clinical studies. However, cannabis research is growing like a weed (pun intended) and each year, studies reveal even more about this intricate network within our bodies.