The Human Endocannabinoid System

Our bodies have over a dozen biological systems, each of which performs a specific, yet essential function to keep us alive and healthy. You may be very familiar with some of them such as the muscular system, the digestive system, and the skeletal system.  There are a handful of biological systems you may be less familiar with such as the integumentary system, also known as the body’s largest organ because it includes the skin, hair, nails, glands and nerve receptors. Another example would be the endocrine system, which is made up of the the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, adrenal glands, pancreas, ovaries, and testicles. Together these glands produce hormones that regulate our metabolism, growth, development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood.

But there is a lesser-known system that like the others, provides an essential function to life, yet gets little attention. This is the endocannabinoid system, the system responsible for creating that magical experience you feel when you consume cannabis. Today we are going to talk about the human endocannabinoid system, the one they did not teach you about in school.  


So what exactly is an endocannabinoid system and what does it do?


The human endocannabinoid system is a complex network of protein-based receptors called cannabinoid receptors and endogenous fatty acids called cannabinoids. These cannabinoid receptors are programmed to make and use cannabinoids. The cannabinoid receptors are tiny sensors that pick up bio-chemical cues from their surroundings. An endogenous cannabinoid describes the cannabinoids produced within the body. Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids produced inside the cannabis plant. Endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids naturally stimulate the cannabinoid receptors within the human body.


Cannabinoid receptors are extremely concentrated within our brains, especially the hippocampus, which controls our memories; the cerebral cortex, which controls our higher cognitive abilities; the cerebellum, which controls our motor coordination; the basal ganglia, which controls movement; the hypothalamus, which regulates our appetites; and the amygdala which controls our emotions. All of these areas are responsible for the mental and physiological processes we experience within our bodies. Cannabinoid receptors can also be found in other organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells.  


What is homeostasis?

Every cannabinoid receptor within our endocannabinoid system has an unique task to perform. Each unique task results in the same goal: promoting and maintaining homeostasis. Homeostasis is the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment. Translation: The endocannabinoid system is an important body system because it has the ability promote and maintain a stable equilibrium within the body. Cannabis literally balances our bodies by destroying abnormal cells and this helps us to stay healthy. Considering that many illnesses and diseases within our bodies stem from some type of imbalance, I would consider this is a major medical discovery. Since its discovery in 1990, the endocannabinoid system has been considered the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health because cannabinoids promote homeostasis at every stage of biological life.


When was the endocannabinoid system discovered?

On July 18, 1990, Lisa Matsuda announced that she and her colleagues from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) located the exact DNA sequence to encode a THC-sensitive receptor. In 1992, Raphael Mechoulam, William Devane, and Dr. Lumir Hanus located a special neurotransmitter. This neurotransmitter was a naturally-occurring “endocannabinoid,” which attached to the same brain-cell receptors as THC. They named it “anandamide,” deriving from the Sanskrit word for bliss.  How perfect is that name? In 1995, Mechoulam and the other scientists, discovered the second endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol, or “2-AG” and 2-AG locks onto the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Since this research is less than 30 years old, we are still at the beginning stages of learning how important our endocannabinoid system really is and how the endocannabinoid system works in conjunction with the other biological systems inside our bodies.


What is clinical endocannabinoid deficiency?

Many common chronic medical conditions have been linked to deficient or overactive neurotransmitters within our bodies. In other words, common chronic medical conditions have been linked to an unbalanced internal environment. For instance, Parkinson’s disease is caused by a dopamine deficiency. Alzheimer’s disease is caused an acetylcholine deficiency. It would make sense that there would also be a disease caused by a cannabis deficiencythis disease is called Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD) and it can happen to anyone, regardless of age or gender. CECD occurs when there is:  

  • not be enough endocannabinoids synthesized;
  • not be enough cannabinoid receptors;
  • too much of the enzymes that break down endocannabinoids; or
  • not enough endocannabinoid signaling happening within the body.


So now when you are asked, “why do you use cannabis?” and you are stumbling through your thoughts of “it evens me out” or “because it makes me feel better” and you can’t capture the words to explain the magic that is happening, just tell them that you have a disease called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency and cannabis is how you treat it. They still may judge you and that is okay.


Closing thoughts & questions for the readers


Can one be so in tune with their body that they can detect the earliest signs of endocannabinoid deficiency as a craving? In other words, if cannabis promotes and maintains balance within the body, does the body crave cannabis when it is coming out of balance? Like how our bodies crave water or liquid when thirsty and how that craving is interpreted as the early signs of dehydration? These are important questions for some cannabis consumers, and since research is still relatively young, these answers are still unclear. However, I would like to believe as our endocannabinoids levels start to drop one of the ways our bodies communicate this drop, is to initiate a cannabis craving.  After all a craving is just one of the ways our bodies can communicate or signal that they need something. Sometimes that something is cannabis. Sometimes it is a nap. Sometimes it is a sandwich. Sometimes it is all three.


The endocannabinoid system might be one of the ways to explain the magical feelings you have when you consume cannabis. The balance it restores to your body might be the reason your nausea is calmed and your creativity soars. But, just like any other consumable, cannabis is not the only thing you should consume in order to be more balanced and healthy. Just like you wouldn’t eat unhealthy foods and exercise, or drink tons of coffee and not sleep, you shouldn’t treat cannabis as a cure-all for any negative symptoms you have that hint at unwellness. Cannabis is just another tool in your toolbox and should be treated as part of a wellness system.


Do you believe that this explains your cannabis cravings? Do you think that this might be an explanation as to why cannabis helps you achieve some of your goals? Might this be the reason for the good effects you feel when you can’t otherwise explain them? Do you believe that new knowledge that we learn about the endocannabinoid system over time will help shine a light onto how homeostasis is achieved in the body?


Let’s talk about your research and experiences. How has cannabis helped heal you inside out?


Ashley Asatu Barnes is a healer, truth teller, seed planter, collaborator, and creator of brave spaces. Ashley specializes in cannabis education, cannabis wellness, and cannabis therapy plans in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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