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The Endocannabinoid System

Updated: Jul 2, 2019


By Alice Rossiter 27th February 2019

What is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?


If you’re reading this blog, then it’s safe to say you either already use CBD oil products, are perhaps thinking about trying one, or maybe just curious about the whole thing.


Whatever your interest, it’s important for consumers to know that CBD isn’t just a fad. It’s not the next ‘superfood’ or overpriced product promising miracles with nothing to back up the claims. There is hard, factual science that underpins the discovery and use of CBD, and the emergence of such products across the world.


To fully appreciate the benefits of CBD, it’s important to understand a system that naturally exists within the human body (and in fact within thousands of species) – known as the endocannabinoid system (often shortened to ECS).


Many people are unaware that they have internal cannabinoid receptors throughout their body – they are found in our brain, central nervous system, gut, connective tissues and nerves. The ECS promotes homeostasis (which means maintaining a constant environment, or balance), affecting everything from our sleep, digestion, pain, inflammation, memory and mood.


A brief history


The first cannabinoid receptor (now known as CB1) was found in the brain of a rat in the late 1980s (yes, it’s that much of a new discovery). It was then found that these receptors interacted with receptors found in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the cannabinoid responsible for marijuana's psychological effects. A few years later, a second cannabinoid receptor was identified (now known as CB2), found throughout the immune system and tissues of the human body. This too had the same reaction to THC as CB1.


As technology has advanced, researchers have studied the relationship between these cannabinoid receptors (known as endocannabinoids) and the cannabinoid receptors in cannabis compounds like CBD and THC (known as phytocannabinoids). Ultimately, an entire unknown signalling system between phytocannabinoids and endocannbinoids was discovered.


With less than three decades of research, the ECS is one of the least studied systems in the body. However, scientists have (and still are) unveiling what a critical role the ECS has in controlling many vital functions within the body.


Put simply, the ECS doesn’t just respond to endocannabinoids produced in our body, but also to external cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, such as CBD. By stimulating the ECS, CBD promotes homeostasis, reduces pain sensation and decreases inflammation.


The role of endocannabinoids


It’s thought that CB1 and CB2 have different signalling mechanisms. We already know they appear in the body in different regions and therefore are likely to have different roles in the ECS.

CB1 receptors are found in areas of the brain that control mood, memory, motor function and perception of pain. They are also located in the central nervous system, connective tissues, glands and related organs. It’s thought that this is why CBD can give patients significant relief from pain, nausea, stress or depression.


CB2 receptors are located throughout the immune system and related organs, such as the spleen, tonsils and thymus gland. They are also found in the brain, but don’t appear as densely as CB1 sites.


This is why CBD is thought to ease conditions such as arthritis, asthma and autoimmune disorders.


CB2 receptors are also found in greater concentrations throughout the gastrointestinal system, with their role here to modulate intestinal inflammation. This is why sufferers of Crohn’s disease and IBS may find that CBD products ease their symptoms.


Looking to use CBD oil?


Many studies are showing the promise that CBD holds, yet it’s important to recognise that a lot of these are at early stages. What we do know for sure is that the ECS exists. The relationship that phytocannabinoids have with cannabinoid receptors within our bodies paves the way for revolutionary discoveries as scientists find out more and more about the ECS.

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