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Your Body’s Endocannabinoid System, Explained

2 minute Read

The medicinal value of cannabis has been well established, but few may understand the physiology of why weed is so helpful.

It’s all in the endocannabinoid system, a biological network that regulates various functions, from sleep to appetite to mood, and more.

To understand the endocannabinoid system, start with its name. It denotes an endogenous, or inherent, group of cannabinoid receptor cells throughout the body. That means when you consume marijuana, the plant’s chemical compounds, or cannabinoids, activate the receptors in the endocannabinoid system.

There are two kinds of cannabinoids: endogenous, or occurring naturally within the body, and exogenous, or coming from outside the body. The endogenous cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids, engage the body’s cannabinoid receptors to regulate functions like appetite, sleep, mood, or pain. The exogenous cannabinoids, found in the cannabis plant, include compounds such as the psychoactive THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).

While marijuana’s own cannabinoids like THC get a lot of attention, fewer people talk about the body’s endocannabinoids, such as anandamide and 2-AG (arachidonoylglycerol). A team of scientists, including Israeli chemist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, who discovered THC in the 60s, first uncovered anandamide in 1992. They named it after the Sanskrit word “ananda,” meaning bliss. Anandamide, which is found throughout the body, plays an important role in functions like motivation, pleasure, and appetite. 2-AG was discovered in 1995 and is more concentrated in the brain than anandamide is, and is integral in regulating appetite, immunity, and pain management.

The body only makes endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG on demand, when it needs them or recognizes it’s running low. When they’re released, enzymes like FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) and MAGL (monoacylglycerol lipase) break them down, while exogenous cannabinoids from weed stay in the body longer.

Both anandamide and 2-AG can bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors, the two receptors in the endocannabinoid system, and send messages to the brain and the rest of your body. CB1 receptors are concentrated in the brain and spinal cord, though are also found throughout the rest of the body. They influence appetite, memory, emotions, and pain. CB2 receptors are found on immune cells and in the peripheral nervous system. They’re influential in reducing inflammation.

While THC binds to CB1 and CB2, CBD inhibits FAAH, which breaks down anandamide. When anandamide can’t be broken down, it instead accumulates in the brain. That’s an accumulation of the so-called bliss molecule.

“The work on the {cannabis} plant has now led to the identification of a major physiological system (the endocannabinoid system), which seems to be involved in many human diseases,” says Dr. Mechoulam.

According to National Institute of Health, “modulating the endocannabinoid system activity may have therapeutic potential in almost all diseases affect humans, including obesity/metabolic syndrome, diabetes and diabetic complications, neurodegenerative, inflammatory, cardiovascular, liver, gastrointestinal, skin diseases, pain, psychiatric disorders, cachexia, cancer, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, among many others.”

To address these health issues, cannabis is one of the natural ways you can target any imbalances in your endocannabinoid system. So whether you smoke weed or have never used it, remember that your endocannabinoid system is still responsible for your bodily functioning.

Your Body’s Endocannabinoid System, Explained