In part one of this series we learned that the endocannabinoid system (or ECS) is a very old and innate bodily system found in humans, all mammals, and many other creatures, too. The ECS works tirelessly to maintain homeostasis, or a state of balance, across many systems in the body. How does the ECS do this?
Physiology of the ECS
Cannabinoids like CBD, whether from the plant (called phytocannabinoids) or produced by our own bodies (called endocannabinoids), are picked up and used by a large system of specialized receptors that sit atop cells throughout our bodies: from the brain to various organs, the skin and even in our bones.
It is, at least in part, because these receptors are so widely spread throughout the body that cannabis and hemp can have such varied effects. By impacting the function of various parts of our brain, organs, and our immune system (to name just a few) phytocannabinoids like CBD are being investigated for a long and diverse list of medicinal applications.
Two primary receptors have been identified in the ECS, the Cannabinoid 1 (CB1) and Cannabinoid 2 (CB2) receptors, each interacting with various phytocannabinoids like THC or CBD in different ways. The CB1 receptors are most abundant in the central nervous system, connective tissues, glands, and organs like the uterus, cardiovascular system, GI tract, pancreas, bones, and liver, with the brain containing most of these receptors.
CB2 receptors are more often found on immune cells, in the gastrointestinal tract, and in the peripheral nervous system. CB2 receptors are also present in the brain, gut, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells, endocrine glands, and reproductive organs.
Many tissues contain both CB1 and CB2 receptors, where they carry out different actions. Cannabinoid receptors are believed to be the most plentiful receptors in the body, more numerous than any other receptor system.
In addition to these receptors, the ECS includes the cannabis-like compounds our bodies naturally produce on their own (endocannabinoids) along with the enzymes and other molecules needed to produce and break down these endocannabinoids.
Two major endocannabinoids have been identified: N-arachidonoyl ethanolamide (AEA, more commonly referred to as anandamide) and 2-AG. They are produced on demand by nerve cells (called neurons) whenever our ECS needs to maintain balance.
Cannabinoids & The ECS
Both our own endocannabinoids and the phytocannabinoids from hemp and cannabis act as chemical messengers in the body, what we call neurotransmitters. There are hundreds of different neurotransmitters produced by the body for use in the specific systems they’re needed. They tell your body when to get certain processes started, and when to stop them.
When picked up by the specialized cannabinoid receptors that sit on our cells, endocannabinoids give the cell-specific directions.
It might be to reduce inflammation in your gut or mitigate the pain response when you stub your toe. Regardless of the reason the ECS kicked on, the goal is to help the body get back to a state of homeostasis and the production of endocannabinoids helps regulate this process. We now understand that by controlling the volume at which neurotransmitters are sent, phytocannabinoids can impact the length and intensity of the body’s response.
Our endocannabinoids, anandamide, and 2-AG, interact with both receptors; however, anandamide interacts primarily with the CB1 receptors while 2-AG interacts primarily with CB2 receptors.
When CB1 receptors are activated in the brain it provides pain and anxiety relief, mood stabilization, and feelings of pleasure and well-being. When CB2 receptors are activated in the brain, it creates a localized anti-inflammatory effect, which is noteworthy because we now know that many neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis, depression, autoimmune disorders, and cancer have been linked to chronic brain inflammation.
The CB2 receptor is also particularly vital to the ECS’s ability to generate new nerve cells in the adult brain, crucial to maintaining adult neuroplasticity throughout life.
Outside the brain, anandamide and 2-AG function more as immune system activators than neurotransmitters focused on stopping inflammation. A 2016 study concluded that virtually all major GI function is controlled by the ECS. Most of the CB2 receptor actions in the immune system (where they are most plentiful) are involved in reducing inflammation, and tempering immune response, reducing swelling, along with influencing cell migration and programmed cell death.
The phytocannabinoids in hemp and cannabis interact with the same receptors (CB1 and CB2) that our own endocannabinoids do, mimicking just what our bodies do when trying to maintain balance. This gives cannabinoids a unique synergy with our own bodily processes and allows them to be a natural and nontoxic medicine.
We also know that other phytochemicals, or active plant compounds like terpenes and flavonoids, can be picked up and utilized by receptors in our endocannabinoid systems as well.
But unlike our endocannabinoids, there are no enzymes present in the body that can immediately break down phytocannabinoids and, therefore, their effects last much longer. When consuming cannabis-based medicines the body gets much higher levels of cannabinoids than it can produce itself, providing a therapeutic effect. In addition to this CBD blocks the enzyme that breaks down the endocannabinoid anandamide, which in effect increases our “endocannabinoid tone.”
“Endocannabinoid tone,” as described by Dr. Ethan Russo, is “a hypothesis that all humans have an underlying endocannabinoid tone that is a reflection of the levels of anandamide and 2-AG, their production, metabolism, and the relative abundance and state of cannabinoid receptors.”
This is why cannabinoid-based treatments and supplements must be tailored to the individual because every body and every ECS is unique.
At Aceso, we are pairing plant science with food science, designing nutritional supplements that set the precedent for hemp-derived CBD. As the world rediscovers the restorative power of plants, we are pushing new boundaries, using the latest technologies to extract and blend plant nutrients into highly-targeted formulations that let you take your adventures further.