What is the Endocannabinoid System?
As one learns in biology, the human body has many systems – the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems to name a few. Each system has parts: for example, the nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. By the late 1980s, science identified a new human system – the endocannabinoid system (ECS) – also referred to as the cannabinoid system. There is a cannabinoid system present in all mammals – to include humans and 15,000 other species.
The ECS has two main parts: cannabinoids, which are chemical neurotransmitters, and two receptors called “CB1″ and “CB2.” Cannabinoids activate receptors found throughout the body – in all organs, actually. In fact, all systems in our bodies are modulated by the cannabinoid system. This means that as a body system changes, it uses the ECS to do so.
Science and popular search sites like Wikipedia use three classifications of cannabinoids:
1. Endogenous cannabinoids (also referred to as endocannabinoids), which are produced by the human body
2. Herbal cannabinoids, the kind found in the cannabis sativa plant
3. Synthetic cannabinoids, produced and distributed by pharmaceutical companies
In each tissue in which it is present, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.
Cannabinoids promote homeostasis at every level of biological life, from the sub-cellular, to the organism, and perhaps to the community and beyond. Here’s one example: autophagy, a process in which a cell sequesters part of its contents to be self-digested and recycled, is mediated by the cannabinoid system. While this process keeps normal cells alive, allowing them to maintain a balance between the synthesis, degradation, and subsequent recycling of cellular products, it has a deadly effect on malignant tumor cells, causing them to consume themselves in a programmed cellular suicide. The death of cancer cells, of course, promotes homeostasis and survival at the level of the entire organism.
Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids are also found at the intersection of the body’s various systems, allowing communication and coordination between different cell types. At the site of an injury, for example, cannabinoids can be found decreasing the release of activators and sensitizers from the injured tissue, stabilizing the nerve cell to prevent excessive firing, and calming nearby immune cells to prevent release of pro-inflammatory substances. Three different mechanisms of action on three different cell types for a single purpose: minimize the pain and damage caused by the injury.
The endocannabinoid system, with its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and all of the body’s organs, is literally a bridge between body and mind. By understanding this system we begin to see a mechanism that explains how states of consciousness can promote health or disease.
In addition to regulating our internal and cellular homeostasis, cannabinoids influence a person’s relationship with the external environment. Socially, the administration of cannabinoids clearly alters human behavior, often promoting sharing, humor, and creativity. By mediating neurogenesis, neuronal plasticity, and learning, cannabinoids may directly influence a person’s open-mindedness and ability to move beyond limiting patterns of thought and behavior from past situations. Reformatting these old patterns is an essential part of health in our quickly changing environment.
For more information on the endocannabinoid system, and a variety of other cannabis-related topics, visit NORML here.