What are cannabinoids and what is the endocannabinoid system?

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Cannabinoids are a varied class of chemical compounds that occur naturally in the human body (called the endocannabinoid system) and cannabis and hemp plants (phytocannabinoids), and interactions with the endocannabinoid system can trigger various physiological actions. Among the 500 or so natural components in cannabis, more than 100 are classified as phytocannabinoids. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the best-known compound due to its psychoactive qualities, while cannabidiol (CBD) appears to play the most significant role in the plant’s medicinal benefits. 

CBD, which does not produce psychoactive effects, is often isolated for medical use.

Cannabinoid Receptors

Cannabinoid receptors are embedded in the cellular membrane in the central nervous and immune systems as well as in various organs. Both endo- and phytocannabinoids bind to these receptors or influence them indirectly. As external environments and stressors change, the endocannabinoid system helps the body maintain a stable biological environment. 

The two main ECS receptors are type 1 (CB1) primarily in the central and peripheral nervous system and type 2 (CB2) primarily in the immune system. Some cellular tissue contains both types performing their respective actions. While THC binds directly to cannabinoid receptors, CBD affects them indirectly by stimulating endocannabinoid production in the body and suppressing the enzyme that metabolizes the natural chemicals. Furthermore, CBD is an example of a phytocannabinoid that binds to non-cannabinoid receptors, including 5-HT1A (serotonin), TRPV1 (pain, inflammation) and adenosine A2A (cardiovascular, respiratory).

How Cannabinoids Work

The endocannabinoid system in the body is responsible for physiological processes like appetite, pain sensation, mood and memory, and cannabinoids mediate communication between various cells and systems. Its receptors, when activated, trigger various chemical, natural and pharmacological effects relating to how we feel, both mentally and physically. Phytocannabinoids work their magic by imitating the endocannabinoids produced naturally in the body.

Some researchers suggest the system serves as a bridge between the brain and the body, and the area of the brain with which the cannabinoids bind dictates the way the cannabis will affect the person. These areas include the limbic system, which affects memory, cognition and psychomotor performance; the mesolimbic pathway, the part of the brain associated with feelings of reward; and various parts of the brain associated with pain perception. 

Cannabinoids, have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) acknowledged that CBD has therapeutic potential for childhood epilepsy, seizures, mental health disorders, addiction and other serious conditions. Both THC and CBD cannabinoids provide relief from pain and inflammation.

The endocannabinoid system in the body is named after the cannabis plant, and researchers studying the plant actually led to the discovery of the system. A side benefit from research into cannabis compounds is a better understanding of how other medicinal herbs might also promote physical and mental health.

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  • John Yoda
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