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The Endocannabinoid System: An Overview

By on March 22, 2013

Summary (click to view)

  • Medical marijuana has been used by humans for thousands of years
  • The endocannabinoid system is a key factor in understanding how it works
  • The endocannabinoid system is made up of cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors
  • This biological system is found in all humans and vertebrate animals
  • Research shows that the endocannabinoid system has a wide range of medical applications
  • Marijuana is believed to be safer than many commonly available substances
  • – Marijuana has been used as a medicine for thousands of years with evidence dating back to 2000 BC, but only in the past few decades have scientists truly understood how it works.

    What led to this understanding was the discovery of the endocannabinoid system; a unique biological system that facilitates the effects of marijuana within the human body.

    What Is The Endocannabinoid System?

    The endocannabinoid system is present in many animals, including slugs. (Image)

    The endocannabinoid system is a central regulatory system that affects a wide range of biological processes. It consists of a group of molecules known as cannabinoids as well as the cannabinoid receptors that they bind to.

    Although marijuana is a source of over 60 cannabinoids (including THC and CBD), the human body produces a number of cannabinoids as well. These endogenous cannabinoids include anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) and are present in all human beings.

    Decades of scientific research on the endocannabinoid system has resulted in the discovery of two types of cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. These receptors are found in various parts of the body, but are most prominent in the brain and immune system.

    Cannabinoid receptors act as binding sites for endogenous cannabinoids as well as cannabinoids found in marijuana. When cannabinoids bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors, they act to change the way the body functions.

    While cannabinoid receptors are primarily expressed in the brain and immune system, researchers have identified cannabinoid receptors in a variety of other places as well, including the peripheral nervous system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, and gastrointestinal and urinary tracts. Cannabinoid receptors continue to be identified in unique parts of the body as research on the endocannabinoid system progresses.

    What Does It Do?

    Interestingly, the endocannabinoid system is not unique to the human species. Rather, research has shown that this system is common to all humans and vertebrate animals – and even some invertebrate animals – suggesting its significance in the process of evolution. Experts believe that natural selection has conserved the endocannabinoid system in living organisms for 500 million years.

    Although the endocannabinoid system affects a wide variety of biological processes (such as appetite and sleep), experts believe that its overall function is to regulate homeostasis.

    Homeostasis is a key element in the biology of all living things and is best described as the ability to maintain stable internal conditions that are necessary for survival. Disease is simply a result of some aspect of failure in achieving homeostasis, making the endocannabinoid system a unique target for medical applications.

    Medical Applications

    A primary example of the endocannabinoid system’s role in homeostasis comes from research that has identified an overexpression of cannabinoid receptors in the tumor cells of various cancer diseases, including lung cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Research has also shown that tumor growth can be inhibited and even reversed when cannabinoids such as THC are administered.

    Experts believe that the overexpression of cannabinoid receptors is an indicator of the endocannabinoid system’s role as a biological defence system, providing strong support for the use of medical marijuana.

    Interestingly, research suggests that this defence system is not only useful in treating cancer, but may also be beneficial in the treatment of a wide variety of conditions. Current evidence points to the endocannabinoid system as being a potential therapeutic target for the following list of disorders:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain
  • Epilepsy
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Glaucoma
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Sleep disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • And many more
  • NIH Review

    In recent years, researchers from all parts of the world have come to acknowledge the vast medical potential of the endocannabinoid system. Summarized in a 2006 review by the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

    “In the past decade, the endocannabinoid system has been implicated in a growing number of physiological functions, both in the central and peripheral nervous systems and in peripheral organs… modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system turned out to hold therapeutic promise in a wide range of disparate diseases and pathological conditions, ranging from mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury, to cancer, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, stroke, hypertension, glaucoma, obesity/metabolic syndrome, and osteoporosis, to name just a few…”

    Excerpt from Pacher P., Batkai S., Kunos G. (2006). The endocannabinoid system as an emerging target of pharmacotherapy. Pharmacol. Rev. 58, 389–462. doi: 10.1124/pr.58.3.2.

    Recreational Use of Marijuana

    While the endocannabinoid system has been thoroughly investigated in the medical field, many still question its role in the recreational use of marijuana.

    Although its long-term effects continue to be debated, evidence shows that marijuana is a surprisingly benign substance that poses no risk of overdose and minimal risk of addiction. Experts also believe that the psychoactive properties of marijuana are most likely to be temporary and pose no risk of brain damage in the long run.

    Granted the use of marijuana should still be approached with caution, evidence points to marijuana as ultimately being safer than most commonly available substances, including caffeine, tobacco and alcohol.

    • Lyle Winterhalder

      It’s time for everyone to wake up and realize what the wealthy have done to this country. The wealthy & the government control our food, fuel, and our way of life. People think they are free in the U.S.. You are free to practice your own religion, but that’s about it. You are a slave to the way of life others have decided for you. Until you become a millionaire you have no voice! wake up

      • Guest

        “If the words ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness, then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it [draft] was written on.”
        ― Terence McKenna

        • Lyle Winterhalder

          I have plenty of happiness in pursuing my way of life. Your just another follower that will drink the kool aid when told, better you than me. I prefer to think for myself and not let others who are being paid to form their thoughts to decide for me. Ask for grape!lol

          • Francoise

            You’RE not your!

      • Korban Dallas

        There is no freedom of Religion for Christianity. Heck. They’re also being systematically wiped out by horrendously painful methods of death in Egypt and many other Muslim countries so what do we do? We let the Mexicans into the U.S. illegally, even the Mexican with criminal records and Mexican parolees from prison and leave the Christians to die. If you’re a Christian and you don’t want to lease your Barn for a Gay marriage you are forced to. If you don’t want to bake a wedding cake for a gay marriage you are forced to. Both were shut down and court cost causing one to lose her house.

      • Dillon Goldberg

        100% concur with this! Money rules everything around me! Money = power!

    • Bardy Hall

      Its amazing… We allow or tolerate to a certain extent, different tastes in all – food, dress, music, sex, colour, but Religion…. well, would you fall out with a friend because she prefers Lemon Sorbet to Lime????? How ridiculous… to allow powers that wanna be – create all this conflict!!!!

    • Charles Berry

      The truth is, the stuff works. I would know I use marijuana for chronic pain from having a spinal fusion on my neck five years ago. I am a strong advocate for legalizing marijuana. Thank you for sharing this story. It proves a point.

    • Mistress Smokes-a-lot

      Very good article because it points out the many benefits of cannabis. The benefits range from cancer to mental illness, the list seems endless. Hooray for the miracle plant =)

      • JT


    • Hiedi Handford

      Great story with exception to one thing. Defense is spelled “defence” in body of story which is incorrect. Please fix for integrity’s sake.

      • Haha

        It’s deffenetly spelled defense

      • Gavriela77

        England, New Zealand, possibly Canada and Austraila use the spelling ‘defence’. All colonies of ‘The Crown’.

    • Hiram

      Remember when the government spent millions of dollars lieyng and convincing people how bad weed is for you. There is nothing wrong with it’s consumption, but big money like prison systems and pharmaceuticals would loose millions.

    • Juergen Meixner

      Cannabis is purest medicine, since ever.