The Endocannabinoid System

CBD and other cannabinoids derived from hemp interact with the endocannabinoid system - an important, but understudied, physiological system that plays a critical role in maintaining homeostasis and health in the human body.

What is the endocannabinoid system?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is found throughout the body and brain and is responsible for regulating a wide variety of physiological processes. These include appetite, thermo-regulation, pain-sensation, mood, memory, inflammation, immune response, and pre- and post-natal development. Its principle function is to maintain balance at a cellular level and ensure optimal health.

The ECS is named after the plant that led to its discovery. It is made up of two main cannabinoid receptors, named CB1 and CB2, two primary endogenous cannabinoids (i.e. cannabinoids produced within the body) -  anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) - and the enzymes that synthesise and breakdown these endocannabinoids . The orphan receptor GPR55 is now considered to be a third cannabinoid receptor because of its activation by THC, anandamide and 2-AG.

There is almost no physiological system that has been looked into in which endocannabinoids don’t play a certain part” Raphael Mechoulam

Anandamide and 2-AG bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors, much like keys fit into locks, triggering a series of chemical reactions in order to produce their physiological effects. Anandamide is similar in structure to THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, and binds to the cannabinoid receptors in the same way. It is thought to play a role in regulating pain, mood, appetite, memory and fertility. 2-AG is considered an important signalling molecule in the brain that is linked to the modulation of feeding, hypotension, neuroprotection, cell proliferation and other interesting physiological processes.

CB1 receptors are most abundant in the brain and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are more commonly found on immune cells, in the gastrointestinal tract, and the peripheral nervous system. The widespread distribution of cannabinoid receptors throughout the body is representative of the diverse role endocannabinoids play in the body and brain, and is indicative of the considerable potential for cannabinoid therapies.

There is emerging evidence to suggest that a disruption to the ECS may contribute to numerous physical ailments, including fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and migraine. Given the number of diseases that present with abnormalities in the ECS, finding ways to enhance or modify the ECS will likely become a focus for research in the future.