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To understand how Cannabis works as medicine, it's vital to understand how our body utilizes it. The human body is comprised of multiple systems, some of which researchers are highly knowledgeable of, such as the nervous, respiratory and digestive systems. Just as these systems are imperative to our well-being, all mammals are equipped with an Endocannabinoid System.
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is responsible for remedying dysfunction and maintaining balance throughout the brain and body. The ECS is found in the Central Nervous System, the Digestive system, the Musculoskeletal System, and in fatty tissue - basically, it plays a role in regulating just about everything, everywhere. The ECS can be broken down into three known components: cannabinoid receptors, cannabinoids, and enzymes that break down cannabinoids.
There are two known cannabinoid receptors throughout the body, easily named CB1 and CB2.
CB1 receptors are found in highest concentration in the Brain and throughout the Central Nervous System - although they are present, and play an important role, throughout the rest of the body. The areas of the brain in which CB1 receptors are present in the highest levels explains many of the effects we know (and love) Cannabis for: in the brain stem, CB1 receptors play a key role in regulating pain arising from stimulation of nerve cells, with clusters in the dorsal-vagal section of the brainstem responsible for regulating nausea. CB1 receptors in the amygdala section of the brain are responsible for controlling anxiety and fear.
CB2 receptors, while present in the brain, are found in high concentration outside of the Central Nervous System, being most abundant in the tissues that make up the immune system. Quick refresher courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine, the immune system consists of "mucous membranes in [the] nose and throat, tonsils, thymus, spleen, bowel, mucous membranes in [the] bladder and genitals, bone marrow, and skin." When the immune system encounters an irritant, it releases chemicals that cause inflammation as a way of isolating the irritant and restricting further harm to the rest of the body. CB2 receptors play an important role in moderating the inflammatory response of a properly functioning immune system. Essentially, cannabinoids synthesized at CB2 receptor sites stops the release of chemicals that cause inflammation.
The ECS regulates itself naturally through the body's production and release of two endogenous (generally shortened to endo: meaning self produced in the body) cannabinoids: Anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG). These endocannabinoids act as neurotransmitters, delivering specific instructions to cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain and body, where the instructions are disbursed to surrounding cells. While both endocannabinoids have been shown to interact with both CB1 and CB2 receptors, Anandamide - known as the Bliss molecule - fits best with CB1 receptors, with 2-AG showing significant activity amongst CB2 receptors.
To understand the roles Anandamide and 2-AG play in the ECS, imagine you're having an issue with a coworker, and you invite your two best friends over. One friend, Anandamide, comes to your aid with a pack of Dutches and an eighth of God's Gift. The second, more responsible friend, 2-AG, comes with a worth of self-help books on how to deal with the situation. Both friends are helping in their own, equally appreciated but very different, ways. It gets quite a bit more nerdy than that, but, you get the picture.
Cannabinoids + Cannabinoid Receptors
Although specifics are dependant on the receptor and cannabinoid types, two main things happen when cannabinoids connect to cannabinoid receptors on dysfunctional cells: (1) the cannabinoid instructs the dysfunctional cell and surrounding cells on how to remedy the malfunction and (2) the cannabinoid blocks the cell from firing distress signals that result in symptoms such as pain and inflammation.
Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase
Nothing in nature lasts forever, and neither does the relationship between cannabinoids and their receptors. Meet Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase, otherwise known as FAAH, and sometimes known as - depeneding on whether you're a glass half empty or half full type of person - the buzzkill component of the ECS.
FAAH's is an enzyme responsible for the breakdown of cannabinoids and thus the unblocking of cannabinoid receptors on cells.
The theory of endocannabinoid deficiency being at the root of an assortment of ailments was first published over a decade ago by Dr. Ethan Russo. His theory ponders a fairly basic concept - knowing that the role of the ECS is to produce cannabinoids that correct dysfunctional cells - if the body has more dysfunctional cells than it can produce cannabinoids for, symptoms of discomfort and disease will develop.
Phyto - meaning plant based - cannabinoids are responsible for teaching scientists everything we know so far about the Endocannabinoid System. The most popular source of phytocannabinoids, (from which all associated names are derived) is Cannabis. Phytocannabinoids closely imitate the endocannabinoids our body naturally produces. On a molecular level, phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids are similar enough in structure that they are capable of interchangeably interacting with designated CB receptors - meaning the body will recognize and utilize phytocannabinoids in the same way it utilizes endocannabinoids.
There are 64 known cannabinoids and 483 total known chemical constitutes in Cannabis, all of which interact with our body in specific mechanisms. Find out which ones are most abundant, and how you can utilize them to support your health, here.
Suggested Research: (links) Visualization of the Endocannabinoid Signaling System, Purpose of ECS in Feeding, National Cancer Institute: Cannabis and Cannabinoids, National Institute of Health: Cannabis and endocannabinoid modulators: Therapeutic promises and challenges, Emerging Role of the CB2 Cannabinoid Receptor in Immune Regulation and Therapeutic Prospects, The CB2 receptor and its role as a regulator of inflammation, List of Abstracts of Dr. Ethan Russo's Published Studies