“For decades, scientists and mental health physicians tried to figure out how THC worked on the brain and body,” explains Dr. Paul Song,
Physician, Board Member of Physicians for a National Health Program. A significant breakthrough came with the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Additional research has since identified endocannabinoids as the cannabinoids produced within our own bodies. The endocannabinoid system regulates and interprets a series of processes in the body, including memory, pain, reproduction, appetite, immune function and many others. The two major endocannabinoids to be identified today are Anandamide and 2-AG, or Arachidonoylglycerol.
The system consists of two main receptor types: CB1 and CB2. The endocannabinoids are lipid-based neurotransmitters that elicit effects on the entire nervous system, from your brain to your fingertips, acting as a volume control for a variety of processes and factors, modulating the way our body interprets signals.
Dr. Song added another significant benefit of the ECS. “Having this biologic basis of the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids has provided more credibility and justification for the medicinal use of cannabis.”
How THC and CBD Interact with the ECS
This may be the part where people understand the endocannabinoid system more than they might have imagined. The reason why a person feels the effects of a high when consuming THC is that it binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, giving an effect throughout the body and head. On the other hand, CBD does not have the same effect on the receptors but does have an effect by activating other receptors in the body.
Song explains: “They are ligands that bind to a receptor that create nourishing physiological reactions, even though they themselves don’t necessarily “nourish” the system. It all comes down to homeostasis and health and not necessarily nutrition or nourishment in the classical sense.”
Multiple Misconceptions Remain
Information surrounding the endocannabinoid system continues to develop and expand. As such, misconceptions often arise. Dr. Song mentioned several, including that the ECS did not evolve due to cannabis use. “Although there may have been co-evolution, the ECS is an essential part of the human body, and both cannabinoids and terpenes are found in more plants than just cannabis….It is however likely that we have had a long term relationship with all plants that have cannabinoids due to the benefit they have on the body.”
Dr. Song also pointed out that cannabinoids can be found in plants other than cannabis. He also acknowledged the misconceptions about how CBD and THC bind to the body’s receptors. “Although the highest concentrations of CB1 are in the brain and CB2 are in the peripheral nervous system, both CB1 and CB2 receptors are found throughout the body.”
Dr. Song noted the changing sentiment around cannabis as a prime driver to better understand how the system works in the prevention, development, and treatment of various diseases; “Great work is also being done to develop highly specific synthetic cannabinoids for pharmaceutical purposes, and highly customized cannabis strains are being developed to provide even greater therapeutic response.”