While there are many things even science doesn’t know about medical cannabis just yet, there is some understanding of just how cannabis and cannabinoids produce their effects. They work through what’s known as the endocannabinoid system (EC system or ECS).
What Is the EC System?
The endocannabinoid system is native to the human body. It occurs naturally in all humans, and it’s designed to process cannabinoid-like substances. Some of these substances are even produced naturally by the body on its own.
The system received its name from the cannabis plant, in much the same way cannabinoids are named after cannabis. Scientists studying the endocannabinoids noted their similarity to THC and other cannabinoids.
A Body-Wide System
The endocannabinoid system is located throughout the brain and the nervous system. There are two receptors, known as cannabinoid receptor 1 and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB1 and CB2, respectively).
The human brain has many receptors designed to interact with a wide variety of different substances. Some receptors interact with dopamine, for example, while others interact with serotonin. The cannabinoid receptors interact with CB1 and CB2.
Although there are only two types of cannabinoid receptors, they can be found throughout the body. They’re located in the brain but also in the organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells.
Locations of CB1 and CB2 Matter
CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors have different functions, and they can be found in different locations throughout the body. CB1 receptors are largely distributed through the brain and the nervous system. Cannabinoids that target and interact with CB1 have effects on motor learning, coordination, metabolism, and pain.
CB2 receptors are generally located in the immune system, rather than the brain and the nervous system. They seem to have a different function than CB1 receptors. Cannabinoids targeting CB2 receptors seem to act more in a protective role, although less is known about them.
It Works in Retrograde
The endocannabinoid system is actually quite unique among bodily systems. In most cases, neurotransmitters move through the synapses, the small gaps between neurons. The post-synaptic neuron, the one receiving this chemical messenger, reacts and passes the message forward to the next neuron.
The endocannabinoid system actually works in reverse. The post-synaptic neuron is activated in response to a cannabinoid. Fat cells in this neuron release the cannabinoid, which then travels across the synapse to the pre-synaptic neuron and binds to receptors there.
Why does this matter? When a cannabinoid binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors on the pre-synaptic neuron, it affects the neuron’s subsequent reactions. Since this neuron is now busy with the cannabinoid, it fires less frequently.
What Does This Mean?
It’s easy to see why it’s so important that the endocannabinoid system works in reverse. Consider the case of pain. Neurons send pain signals to the brain. If the pain is intense, the neuron fires more frequently, sending more pain signals to the brain. If this neuron becomes busy with a cannabinoid, it will reduce the number of signals it relays to the brain. As the neuron becomes “quieter,” the brain interprets this as less pain.
In turn, a patient may perceive a “dulling” of pain. The reduction of pain signals also calms nearby immune cells, which release inflammatory substances in response to the pain signals. As a result, inflammation may also be reduced.
How Does Medical Cannabis Help?
The endocannabinoid system has the overall effect of keeping the body in a state of equilibrium or homeostasis. Keep in mind your body has natural substances similar to cannabinoids, and it produces these substances on a regular basis. These endocannabinoids can help the body do everything from regulate your temperature to improve your memory.
If the endocannabinoid system is disrupted or damaged, scientists theorize this can lead to “cannabinoid deficiency,”
Medical cannabis could help restore the body’s careful balance, particularly for patients who have a “cannabinoid deficiency” or for those whose endocannabinoid system has been damaged.