For most of history, little was understood about the effects of cannabis on the human body. In the 1990’s, however, scientists discovered what is known as the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a biological network of endocannabinoids and receptors that help regulate a variety of physiological processes. These receptors are found throughout the body and help regulate mood, appetite, digestion, stress, sleep, immune function, pain, and memory. Endocannabinoid receptors are activated by cannabinoids, which are chemical compounds that the body naturally produces. Interestingly, cannabinoids are also found in the cannabis plant, which mimic the effects of cannabinoids produced by the body.
Though there are several different cannabinoids derived from cannabis, the two most popular are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabinoids such as THC or CBD activate endocannabinoid receptors, which respond differently depending on the cannabinoid and perform different bodily tasks. Additionally, there are two receptor types: CB1 and CB2. Discovered first in the early 1990’s, CB1 receptors are largely found in the brain (the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala) and nervous system, where CB2 receptors exist mostly in immune cells throughout the body. In turn, CB1 and CB2 receptors are responsible for regulating different physiological functions. CB1 receptors are primarily associated with regulating movement, coordination, cognition, memory, and emotion. Conversely, CB2 receptors are associated with inflammation, pain, and appetite. Together, these receptors play a vital role in maintaining homeostasis and can be used to treat a variety of medical conditions. Furthermore, understanding how external cannabinoids such as THC and CBD affect the body can help one better use cannabis products for health benefits.
The endocannabinoid system’s primary function is to maintain homeostasis or biological harmony in the face of environmental changes. Simply put, it helps the body keep everything balanced and operating smoothly. When something appears to be acting abnormally, the body will employ the endocannabinoid system to try and fix it. Hunger, temperature and hormone levels are all examples of homeostasis-related changes that the endocannabinoid system regulates. Cannabinoids can therefore be used to positively influence a wide range of biological functions. To better understand the effects of cannabinoids, one must first understand the specific relationship between receptors, cannabinoids, and bodily processes. Different cannabinoids activate different receptors, which are then responsible for regulating distinct physiological functions. For example, THC primarily activates CB1 receptors in the brain, which are responsible for inducing psychoactive effects. CBD, on the other hand, is known to bind with CB2 receptors, which are found in the gastrointestinal track, immune cells, and are associated with regulating pain and inflammation. One could therefore use CBD to mitigate inflammation as well as for stomach related health issues. CBD has also proven to be effective in its ability to reduce seizures and mitigate symptoms of epilepsy.
Scientific knowledge regarding endocannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system is still growing. Further scientific research will likely reveal even more potential benefits of cannabinoids and ways in which the endocannabinoid system can be used to maintain health and combat illness.