What is the Endocannabinoid System?
First, it’s important to break down what endocannabinoid means. "Cannabinoid" comes from "cannabis," and "endo" is short for "endogenous," which means that it is produced naturally inside of your body. So "endocannabinoid" simply means cannabis-like substances that naturally occur inside us.
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is made up of 3 parts:
- Receptors in the nervous system and around your body that endocannabinoids and cannabinoids bond with
- Enzymes that help break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids
What are Endocannabinoids?
Similar to the plant cannabinoid THC, endocannabinoids are molecules that bind to and activate cannabinoid receptors. However, unlike THC, endocannabinoids are produced naturally by the cells in the human body. The two major cannabinoids are anandamide and 2-AG. These are made up of fat-like molecules within cell membranes and are synthesized on demand. What this means is that they are made and used exactly when your body needs them, unlike other biological molecules that are made then packaged and stored for later.
Anandamide: Scientifically known as N-arachidonoylethanolamine (AEA), this molecule is sometimes referred to as the “bliss molecule.” This fatty neurotransmitter was discovered in 1992 and has been the topic of research since. Many believe that it has an impact on working memory and early-stage embryo development.
2-AG: 2-ArachidonoylGlycerol (2-AG) was brought to light in 1994 when scientists discovered its affinity for cannabinoid receptors. This molecule has been found in high levels in the central nervous system and is spotted in maternal bovine as well as human milk.
How Does It Affect How We Feel?
To understand the human endocannabinoid system (ECS), it’s helpful to know a little about one of the most fundamental concepts in biology: homeostasis. The role of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain homeostasis or equilibrium in the body. In order for our bodies to perform their best, the biological systems found within us (ex: the cardiovascular system and digestive system) must regulate themselves to keep conditions in an ideal middle range.
An easy example of homeostasis is temperature. When it’s hot outside, our bodies sweat in an attempt to cool down, which is a result of our muscles working to generate more heat.
The endocannabinoid system is involved in multiple physiological processes that affect mood, pain sensation, appetite, metabolism, memory, sleep, bone development, and immune function. All vertebrate species possess one. Cannabinoid receptors are believed to be among the most plentiful in our central nervous system.
Through those receptors, the ECS helps regulate a lot of important functions, such as:
- Immune function
- Inflammation, including neuroinflammation
- Motor control
- Temperature regulation
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