The Endocannabinoid System and CBD Explained

The Endocannabinoid System and CBD Explained

By Harriet Clark 

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a modulatory biological system inside our bodies. The ECS is a giant feedback system making our bodies exquisitely adaptable to a constantly changing environment. The ECS regulates cardiovascular, immune system amongst many others, and its role is to turn up or down the system that needs adjusting. Hunger or body temperature for example are systems that are constantly needing regulation. 

Why is the Endocannabinoid such an important system?

The ECS facilitates homeostasis or balance to maintain a state of health. Scientists know that when the ECS is impaired or under performing, illness can follow. Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome is a medical condition that can occur when the body's balance is thrown out. We will look at this in more detail further into this post. 

When there is internal balance, the different parts of our brain are able to communicate at a cellular level through neurotransmitters, receptors and nerves to coordinate our bodies, affecting how we think, feel and react. 

The Endocannabinoid or ECS is an incredibly important biological system but was only discovered very recently as a result of research into cannabis. The endocannabinoid system or ECS was named after the cannabis plant that led to its discovery. 

It is not only humans that have an endocannabinoid system, all vertebrates possess an endocannabinoid system.

Bradley Alder in his article, ‘Getting High on the Endocannabinoid system’ writes, 

“Given the enormous complexity of the brain, the endocannabinoid system could affect behavior in an almost limitless number of ways.”

What are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that are naturally produced in the human body. They are also produced in the cannabis plant. Cannabis plants have around 400 chemical compounds, and out of this number 104 are known to be unique to cannabis. 

In the human body, cannabinoids are called endocannabinoids (“endo”, from the word endogenous meaning inside) and in plants, such as cannabis sativa, they are phyocannabinoids (phyto, relating to plants). 

Our brains use cannabinoids to influence CB1 and CB2 receptors that respond to stress, illness or injury. The endocannabinoid system modulates stress, pain, hormone levels, temperature, hunger to maintain internal balance. 

How does the ECS actually work?

The endocannabinoid system regulates mood, memory and stress, and other systems as we’ll see. 

Imagine you get a fracture in your body, in your ankle let’s say. The fracture will cause cell death and in response the ECS will signal for a rush of activity to compensate:

  • Increased blood flow in the area of injury 
  • Inflammation occurs, a natural defense against injury
  • White blood cells will form in the surrounding areas 
  • When the inflammation calms in the affected area, the ECS will read the lymphatic signals
  • After deciding that there is no longer a need for the excessive lymphatic response (inflammation), the ECS activates the cannabinoid receptors to modulate the immune cells to reduce the inflammatory response

How does CBD interact with the Endocannabinoid system?

Researchers are still studying this. What is known is that unlike THC, CBD does not bind to the main receptors of CB1 and CB2. CBD prevents the FAAH enzyme from breaking down anandamide. Anandamide is named after the Sanskrit word ananda, which is bliss, so if this enzyme is not broken down, the naturally calming effects are felt more strongly. 

An example of how CBD therapeutically interacts with the ECS is PTSD. Two important features have been identified in patients with PTSD. 1) Cannabis is very often smoked 2) PTSD patients have more cannabinoid receptors. (Hauer et al., 2013;

CBD has been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD, (sleep disturbance, depression and or anxiety) in 3 different ways (Berardi et al., 2016). Firstly by reducing traumatic memories, secondly by altering the brain’s capacity to retrieve traumatic memory and or thirdly by triggering the extinction of unwanted memories.  This last potential action produced by CBD is therapeutically very positive in the search for treatments for trauma related illness and is being researched in much greater detail. 

Therapeutic benefits of CBD interacting with the ECS

The different forms of CBD, vaping, oil, flower, all have very different impacts. 

5 randomized trials (178 participants) showed that inhaled cannabis provides short-term pain relief to 1 in 5-6 patients suffering chronic neuropathic pain (diabetes, HIV, trauma). (Andreae et al., 2015).

Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome - How CBD can help?

Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome is when homeostasis is interrupted and so there is a threat to the body’s internal balance.

It is thought that the following occurs to produce Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome:

  1. The body is not producing enough endocannabinoids 
  2. There are too few receptors. In other words the body can no longer communicate efficiently between the various systems.
  3. Too many enzymes produced. Enzymes are designed to break down substances in the body but too many enzymes produce adverse effects. 
  4. Receptors and the Endocannabinoid system are not communicating. This means that the various systems in the body are under performing, because messages are not being effectively relayed. 

Symptoms of Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) 
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Appetite issues
  • Impaired sleep
  • Stress

What causes Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome?

Research is very much still underway but it is thought that a sedentary lifestyle, and other lifestyle choices such as excessive alcohol and poor diet, or environmental stress can also promote Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome. Genetics also play a role, along with the environment. 

What is the treatment for Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome?

Stress reduction activities, such as massage, exercise, healthy diet, sleep management etc. CBD can also be recommended because, as we know, CBD is a powerful cannabinoid with the capacity to increase receptor activity in the ECS, as well as inhibiting the overproduction of enzymes. 

More research is needed to understand more fully how cannabinoids interact with the human body.

When was the Endocannabinoid system discovered?

In 1992 Dr Lumir Hanus isolated the first known cannabinoid in the human brain. Dr Hanus, a Czech chemist was working in the University of Jerusalem, along with US Pharmacologist, Dr William Devane together they made the discovery. 

Earlier in 1964, Dr Rafael Machoulam’s team at the same University was the first to isolate cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive part of the cannabis plant. 

What is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) made up of?

The ECS is made up up:

  1. Endocannabinoids
  2. Receptors
  3. Regulatory enzymes

The 2 key endocannabinoids in humans that researchers have identified are:

  • anandamide (AEA)
  • 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG)

Receptors - There are 2 main endocannabinoid receptors:

CB1 - is a G protein receptor, found mainly in the central nervous system. 

CB2 - Mainly found outside the nervous system and is associated with the immune system

How do we create Cannabinoids, and what is their role?

The body naturally produces cannabinoids, more or less depending on what is needed. Certain foods such as cacao beans, turmeric, and echinacea can stimulate the ECS system.  

It has been shown that cannabinoid receptors can be targeted and there is much ongoing research in this area. 

For many years, scientists thought CB1 receptors worked like a lock and key with cannabinoids. More recent research shows that CB1 receptors are more malleable than was previously thought. This has been a useful discovery for researchers who are developing chemicals to mimic the therapeutic effects of cannabis without so many of the unwanted side effects.