The endogenous cannabinoid system, or endocannabinoid system (ECS) for short, can be thought of as the air traffic control center for the body and controls physiological processes, including appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory. The ECS consists of two primary cannabinoid receptors, CB1 receptors (most abundant in the central nervous system) and CB2 receptors (more abundant in the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and peripheral nervous systems).
Cannabinoids and naturally occurring endocannabinoids affect the user by interacting with the CB1 and CB2 receptors, binding with the receptors much like a handshake between two people. The first endocannabinoid was discovered in 1992 and named “anandamide” (after the Sanskrit word for “bliss”). Anandamide appears within the brain and binds to CB1 receptors; it is known as the “human THC” and functions as the body’s own antidepressant, contributing to our mental health and providing pain relief (especially after exercise), as well as appetite and memory regulation. Additional naturally-occurring endocannabinoids that bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors have since been discovered.
molecular illustration of Anandamide
Sanskrit word for “Bliss”
Cannabinoids and endocannabinoids bind to the same CB receptors, but interact with the ECS in the body in many different ways to produce the various physiological, medicinal and therapeutic effects. These interactions are what drive modern research into cannabinoids and will lead to future medical discoveries as research on the cannabis plant continues to grow.
The physiological effects of cannabinoids vary depending on the location of the cannabinoid receptors that they stimulate. These receptors are common in our limbic system (the part of the brain that affects memory, cognition and psychomotor performance), mesolimbic pathway (activity in this region is associated with feelings of reward), and are also widely distributed in areas of pain perception. Different ailments and conditions respond to different cannabinoids. Someone with chronic inflammation, for example, may benefit from CBD, as it is one of the strongest anti-inflammatory agents found in nature. On the other hand, THC is one of the strongest analgesics (pain killers); insomnia sufferers, for example, would also benefit from THC because it helps calm the mind.
The entourage effect—the idea that molecules that occur together in nature interact in useful ways—definitely applies to cannabinoids and terpenes. Terpenes are molecular compounds that are naturally found in plants and insects, manifest themselves most often in the forms of natural oils, and are accompanied by a distinct aroma and viscosity. Terpenes and cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) work together to maximize benefits in the body. Lab and patient-based studies reveal that while THC or CBD can work alone for some symptoms, their combination can often create better outcomes. Specific ratios, especially with naturally-occurring terpenes, have the potential for even better effects. This combination of cannabinoids and terpenes has been termed the “Entourage Effect” and is the leading theory dominating cannabis research worldwide. See this article on choosing the right product for you, your ECS system, and specific ailments.