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What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

August 12, 2019 • Lakewood Medical • General

Research illuminating the human endocannabinoid system holds great promise for continuing to expand the therapeutic uses of medical marijuana. Currently legalized in 33 states and the District of Columbia, medical marijuana is becoming more widely used to treat a variety of symptoms and conditions. While most people are familiar with the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, few know that medical marijuana works on the human body through a series of receptors, molecules, and enzymes called the endocannabinoid system. After discovering this system in the 1990s, scientists have made some surprising and encouraging discoveries about its relationship to medical marijuana and human health.   

What Is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)? 

The endocannabinoid system is comprised of three parts – cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids, and metabolic enzymes – that play a role in a host of body functions, from stimulating the appetite to altering the mind.  Cannabinoid receptors are found on the surface of cells throughout the body. Receptors gauge the conditions surrounding the cell, communicating internally and triggering a cellular response when one is necessary.  Though several cannabinoid receptors exist, CB1 and CB2 are the two most prominent types, having been discovered first and most heavily researched. THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, is known to bind with CB1, producing positive feelings.  Endocannabinoids activate receptors in the same way, except these molecules differ in that they come from within the body itself. Endocannabinoids are unique in that a cell only produces them when they are needed — thus they are created and synthesized in quick succession, rather than building up in cellular storage.  Finally, the third component of the endocannabinoid system is enzymes, which break down endocannabinoids after their usage. These enzymes play a crucial part in the behavior that distinguishes the endocannabinoid system — by destroying endocannabinoids once they have done their part, enzymes regulate endocannabinoid reactions and make sure they begin and end as necessary. 

How Does Medical Marijuana Work with the ECS? 

Because endocannabinoid receptors are on cells throughout the human body, the ECS affects both the central and peripheral nervous system and, as a result, can influence almost every bodily function. To this end, endocannabinoid receptors can be targeted by cannabinoids — molecules that differ from endocannabinoids in that they come from outside the body, and in the case of medical marijuana, from cannabis — to achieve therapeutic effects.  Researchers who study the impact of pharmacotherapy on the ECS have found that “modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system [has] turned out to hold therapeutic promise in a wide range of disparate diseases and pathological conditions, ranging from mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury, to cancer, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, stroke, hypertension, glaucoma, obesity/metabolic syndrome, and osteoporosis,” among others.  While this news is certainly cause for celebration, science has a long way to go in fully untangling how the ECS affects human health and how exogenous cannabinoids — like THC, CBD, and other chemical compounds within cannabis — affect the ECS. As researcher Bradley E. Alger notes, the endocannabinoid system has been present in humans for millennia, and evidence suggests that marijuana has been used medicinally for 4,700 years, but how cannabis engaged the human body was only partially illuminated for the first time in 1964 when THC was discovered.  Dr. Alger explains that while these therapies hold great promise, they are not uncomplicated given the “heterogeneous dispersion” of the ECS throughout the body. The widespread placement of endocannabinoid receptors can make it difficult to accomplish specific therapies without side effects in other areas of bodily function. Still, understanding the ECS and its broad implications helps scientists pinpoint how exogenous cannabinoids can make use of the body’s innate systems to offer potential health solutions. 

How Can Medical Marijuana Help Me? 

Medical marijuana has the potential to ameliorate the symptoms of many conditions. As a treatment it may increase appetite, relieve pain, reduce anxiety, and mitigate other physical and emotional ailments. However, given the burgeoning nature of the ECS research field, patients who seek the benefits of medical marijuana should consult a doctor who can recommend you extensively researched, safe treatment, as appropriate.  Schedule an appointment at Lakewood Medical Clinic for a consultation with doctors whose professional expertise can guide you in exploring your treatment options and learning how medical marijuana could become a healthful component of your treatment plan.