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How Do We Process Cannabis?

The Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex and widespread signaling system found in the bodies of mammals, including humans. It plays a crucial role in regulating various physiological processes, maintaining balance and homeostasis, and influencing overall health and well-being. The ECS is named after cannabis because it was discovered while researchers were studying the effects of cannabinoids, the active compounds found in cannabis, on the human body. The discovery of tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol in 1964 by Israel researcher Raphael Mechoulam, led to the discovery of the ECS in 1988 by researchers Allyn Howlett and William Devane.

The ECS consists of three main components:

  1. Endocannabinoids: These are endogenous cannabinoids produced by the human body. The two primary endocannabinoids are anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Endocannabinoids are synthesized on-demand and act as signaling molecules that bind to cannabinoid receptors to trigger specific responses in the body.

  2. Cannabinoid Receptors: These receptors are found throughout the body, primarily in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and peripheral tissues, including immune cells, the gastrointestinal tract, and reproductive organs. The two main types of cannabinoid receptors are CB1 and CB2 receptors.

    • CB1 Receptors: Primarily located in the brain and central nervous system, CB1 receptors influence various neurological functions, including pain perception, mood regulation, memory, and appetite.

    • CB2 Receptors: Found primarily in immune cells and peripheral tissues, CB2 receptors play a significant role in modulating the immune response and inflammation.

  3. Enzymes: Enzymes are responsible for the synthesis and breakdown of endocannabinoids. The main enzymes involved in the ECS are fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), responsible for breaking down anandamide, and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), responsible for breaking down 2-AG.

The ECS acts as a regulator and communicator, maintaining a delicate balance within the body's systems. When there is an imbalance or disruption in normal physiological processes, endocannabinoids are synthesized and bind to cannabinoid receptors to initiate a response aimed at restoring balance.

For example, if there is inflammation in a particular area of the body due to injury or illness, the ECS may be activated to reduce the inflammation and promote healing. In cases of stress or anxiety, the ECS may help regulate mood and promote a sense of calmness.

The endocannabinoid system is involved in a wide range of functions, including pain modulation, immune system regulation, appetite control, mood regulation, memory, sleep, and more. Its complex interactions with other systems in the body make it an essential and fascinating area of study in both medical and scientific fields. Researchers are continually exploring how modulating the ECS may lead to potential therapeutic applications for various health conditions.

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A depiction of Cannabnioids interacting with the CB1 and CB2 receptors.

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