What Is the Endocannabinoid System?
Just like your immune system, your endocannabinoid system consists of several parts spread throughout your body. These different parts work in a coordinated way through chemical signaling. Mainly, this system consists of different kinds of receptors located on cell membranes and the signaling molecules, called endocannabinoids, that interact with these receptors. There are also specific enzymes involved in creating the signaling molecules when your body has a need for them and destroying them when their job is done.
There are two related but distinct types of receptors that have been conclusively identified in the endocannabinoid system. One is called the cannabinoid receptor type 1, abbreviated as CB1. The other is called the cannabinoid receptor type 2, abbreviated as CB2. There are also several other receptors on cell membranes that are structurally similar, functionally similar, and when cloned, have similar gene sequences. These are sometimes called "orphan receptors" because they have not yet been "adopted" by scientists as an official type of cannabinoid receptor. However, they are strongly suspected to be cannabinoid receptors and will likely be named as such over the next few years.
There are a variety of signaling molecules (endocannabinoids), including the very well known AEA and 2-AG, also known as anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol respectively. While these signaling molecules are produced inside the human body, there are similar molecules, called cannabinoids, in the oil of the cannabis plant that mimic them. Specifically, THC mimics AEA and CBD mimics 2-AG. Note the distinction: endocannabinoids are cannibinoids that are produced inside the body while cannabinoids are similar molecules found in cannabis oil.
The receptors that 2-AG is capable of binding with, the CBD in CBD oil can also bind with and produce a very similar effect. This is a key fact to know. Other cannabinoids found in CBD oil can also bind with with receptors in the endocannabinoid system.
When CB1 receptors were first discovered, it was thought to be strictly associated with the nervous system, i.e. the brain, spine, and all the radiating nerves. However, it was later discovered that CB1 receptors are also quite numerous in the sexual organs in both men and women. CB1 receptors were also discovered on the cell membranes of the cells in many other organs such as the liver and the heart. Thus, although you may read that CB1 receptors are in the nervous system, that has turned out to not be the whole truth as more research has been done.
The CB2 receptors were originally thought to be only associated with the immune system. While it is true there is a high concentration of CB2 receptors throughout the whole immune system, especially in the spleen, it has now been discovered that they exist in many other parts of the body as well. It's also true that you won't find as many CB2 receptors in the brain or along other parts of the nervous system as you find CB1 receptors. However, you will find some CB2 receptors in the nervous system, just as you'll find some CB1 receptors in the immune system, although the immune system is dominated by CB2 receptors.
As more research has come, the original impression about how this all works have become fuzzier. Originally, it was thought that THC and anandamide only interacted with CB1 receptors. This has now been shown to be false. While these signaling molecules do interact much more with CB1 receptors, they can also interact with CB2 receptors to some degree. They may also interact with orphan receptors. It was also thought that CBD and 2-AG only interacted with CB2 receptors. While they more frequently interact with CB2 receptors, they also interact with with CB1 receptors to some degree. It's also true that you'll sometimes see CB1 and CB2 receptors located in the same organ and even on the same cell!
Why Is the Endocannabinoid System Important?
As more research comes out about the endocannabinoid system, it is becoming increasingly clear that this system affects all other systems in the body. In fact, it would be fair to say that the endocannabinoid system controls the other systems by turning certain chemical pathways on and off, by instructing cells to grow or differentiate into more specialized cells, by releasing or decreasing certain hormones, and by actually controlling what genes in your DNA are expressed at any given time. The endocannabinoid system actually has the power to turn nerve pathways on and off or instruct the immune system on which type of cells to release and when.
Cannabinoids from cannabis are being researched for many diseases. Here are just a few examples. Some research has already demonstrated that cannabinoids can interact with the endocannabinoid system and alter cancer cell growth! CBD has been shown to be more effective than prescription pharmaceuticals and stop life threatening seizures in epileptics. There is a very high concentration of endocannabinoid system receptors on the insulin producing cells in the pancreatic which has led to research that shows great promise for diabetics. By interacting with the receptors in the immune system, cannabinoids in CBD oil are able to reduce painful inflammation. Cannabinoids can also interact with the endocannabinoid system to reduce migraines.
Where Is the Research on the Endocannabinoid System Happening?
Due to draconian cannabis laws, the United States lags woefully behind other countries in cannabis research, especially with regard to their usefulness is treating disease. The two nations that are leading the way on cannabis research are Israel and Australia. Both of these countries have well funded cannabis research programs. Thus, we can expect some of the best research to come out of these two countries over the next decade.