The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex cell-signaling system identified in the early 1990s.
Cannabidiol works by interacting with the body through a complex network of cannabinoid receptors, called the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).
This vast internal system controls essential daily functions such as appetite, mood, and sleep patterns. When these receptors are stimulated they help the body create its own chemicals called endocannabinoids.
The endocannabinoid system refers to a collection of cell receptors and corresponding molecules. You can think of cell receptors like little golf holes on the surface of your cells.
The key to sinking the put in these golf holes are chemical molecules called agonists. Each time an agonist binds to a cell it relays a message, giving your cell specific direction.
The endocannabinoid system is the name for a series of cell receptors that respond to certain kinds of agonists. Two primary cell receptors make up the ECS, Cannabinoid Receptor 1 (CB1) and Cannabinoid Receptor 2 (CB2). The keys for these receptors are called endocannabinoids.
These functions all contribute to homeostasis, which refers to stability of your internal environment. For example, if an outside force, such as pain from an injury or a fever, throws off your body’s homeostasis, your ECS kicks in to help your body return to its ideal operation.
Today, experts believe that maintaining homeostasis if the primary role of the ECS.
The ECS exists and is active in your body even if you don’t use cannabidiols.
Experts are still trying to fully understand the ECS. But so far, we know it plays role in regulating a range of functions and processes, including:
- reproduction and fertility
The ECS involves three core components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.
Endocannabinoids, also called endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules made by your body. They're similar to cannabinoids, but they're produced by your body.
Experts have identified two key endocannabinoids so far:
- anadaminide (AEA)
- 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)
These help keep internal functions running smoothly. Your body produces them as needed, making it difficult to know what typical levels are for each.
These receptors are found throughout your body.
Endocannabinoids bind to them in order to signal that the ECS needs to take action.
There are two main endocannabinoid receptors:
- CB1 receptors, which are mostly found in the central nervous system
- CB2 receptors, which are mostly found in your peripheral nervous system, especially immune cells
Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor. The effects that result depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to.
For example, endocannabinoids might target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to relieve pain. Others might bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body’s experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders.
Enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their function.
There are two main enzymes responsible for this:
fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down AEA
monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which typically breaks down 2-AG
The other major cannabinoid found in cannabis is cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t make you “high” and typically doesn’t cause any negative effects.
Experts aren’t completely sure how CBD interacts with the ECS. But they do know that it doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors the way THC does.
Instead, many believe it works by preventing endocannabinoids from being broken down. This allows them to have more of an effect on your body. Others believe that CBD binds to a receptor that hasn’t been discovered yet.
While the details of how it works are still under debate, research suggests that CBD can help with pain, nausea, and other symptoms associated with multiple conditions.
Some experts believe in a theory known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). This theory suggests that low endocannabinoid levels in your body or ECS dysfunction can contribute to the development of certain conditions.
A 2016 article https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5877694/ reviewing over 10 years of research on the subject suggests the theory could explain why some people develop migraine, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome.
None of these conditions have a clear underlying cause. They’re also often resistant to treatment and sometimes occur alongside each other.
If CECD does play any kind of role in these conditions, targeting the ECS or endocannabinoid production could be the missing key to treatment, but more research is needed.