Most people have heard an earful about the health benefits of CBD — its effects on stress-response, inflammation & immunity, pain, mood, and more — but the question of how and why CBD works opens a window onto a vast & complex system that science is still making sense of: the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).
The outlines of the ECS emerged during the 1960s and 70s, from research into the effects of cannabis on the human body.
Scientists were able to isolate numerous phytochemicals from the cannabis plant — phytocannabinoids (“phyto” means “plant”) — and by studying their effects revealed a web of receptors, enzymes, and biochemical pathways involved in manufacturing & using the body’s own form of cannabinoids: endocannabinoids (“endo“ means “originating within the body”).
Although research focused primarily on humans and other mammals, it turned out that we share these neurochemicals with most members of the animal kingdom, including mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, and even sea urchins. It’s now clear that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) evolved almost 600 million years ago.
Because the ECS arose so early, as animals evolved into more complex beings it became connected to many different physiological and neurological functions — which we’ll explore more in future articles. For now, here is a brief introduction to this vital system…
Stars of the Endocannabinoid System
- Endocannabinoids (eCBs)
- Cannabinoid receptors (CB receptors)
- Enzymes that synthesize and break down eCBs
Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are chemical messengers of the nervous system. Similarly, endocannabinoids (eCBs) are the messengers of the ECS, and are produced throughout your body.
The two key eCBs circulating in your body are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. Just like the phytocannabinoids in cannabis, these neurotransmitters are built from lipids (fats or oils). (The lipid-based structure of cannabinoids is the reason why THC and CBD are fat-soluble…and why your typical cannabis or hemp extract is delivered in an oil base like coconut or butter.)
Anandamide was discovered in the 1990s and gets its name from the Sanskrit word ananda, or “bliss.” This molecule operates throughout the endocannabinoid system and is involved with appetite, memory, and pregnancy, to name just a few of its functions. It’s even been identified as the source of the “runner’s high” experienced during or after intense exercise.