The Endocannabinoid System. Part 1

To understand how cannabidiol (CBD) works you must understand the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

We all have an endocannabinoid system, as do all mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. Even amphibians seem to have a primitive version.  The system is not exactly the same in all animals so we will deal only with the system in humans which is much the same as in all mammals, so also the same as your dog or cat.

The endocannabinoid system is internal to the body which is why it has the prefix ‘endo’ from the Greek word meaning ‘within, inner, absorbing, or containing’.  It consists of endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors and enzymes.

Endocannabinoids are fatty substances or oils in microscopic quantities which interact or bind with cannabinoid receptors.

Cannabinoid receptors are membranes in our body’s cells that enable signals to be passed back and forth.  There are CB1 and CB2 receptors in the central nervous system and CB2 receptors in the immune and gastrointestinal system. Scientists have suggested that there is a CB3 receptor but this is still theory at present.

The enzymes are responsible for the manufacture and disposal of endocannabinoids.

Our body manufactures endocannabinoids in order to pass messages concerning functions such as pain, inflammation, memory, appetite and mood.

CBD is a phytocannabinoid, that is it is a substance derived from a plant (phyto) that interacts with the cannabinoid receptors found in the body.  Most phytocannabinoids are from the cannabis plant although some other plants such as echinacea and cocoa also contain cannabinoid-like substances.

So CBD and other phytocannabinoids can affect our body in the same way as endocannabinoids.  The science is not yet clear whether phytocannabinoids can replace or substitute for endocannabinoids but it seems to make logical sense.  Remember though that when you ingest CBD, even in small doses, these are massively greater than the microscopic quantities of endocannabinoids.

In theory then (and from actual experience), phytocannabinoids can affect pain, inflammation, memory, appetite and mood.  Remember though that the effect can work either way. For example, scientists are working hard to research how cannabinoids can reduce rather than increase pain and inflammation and have a beneficial effect on our memory and mood.

So it’s pretty clear that our endocannabinoid system is very important to our health and wellbeing. All the more remarkable then that it was only discovered in 1988 by an Israeli scientist named Raphael Mechoulam and 30 years later most doctors do not receive any training in it.  Medical schools have yet to catch up with the science.

Just how important the endocannabinoid system is has been well expressed by Dr David Allen, an eminent cardiac surgeon and cardiologist. He describes it as the most important discovery in medicine since the invention of sterile surgery technique.

In the next article in this series we will look at the endocannabinoid system in more detail.

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