Even after centuries of in-depth study into human anatomy and physiology, medical experts continue to make intriguing discoveries. The complexities of our body’s systems and their multifaceted contributions to our overall health and wellness are still being understood.
Neurotransmitters are vital to the body’s communication system, transmitting signals between nerve cells and regulating various bodily functions. While more than 40 neurotransmitters have been identified, recent research uncovered a new system in the body known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a complex cell-signalling system that regulates physiological processes, including appetite, pain sensation, mood, and immune function.
What is the endocannabinoid system?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) was identified by researchers studying a well-known cannabinoid in the 1990s. It’s a vast network of signals and receptors that work throughout our brain and body.
This cell signalling network was first isolated in the brain. It has been heavily studied since then, and experts are learning how it plays a role in the body’s functions.
Endocannabinoids are naturally produced by the body – ‘endo’ means ‘within’. It’s also named after cannabinoids, a substance in cannabis plants with similar components to endocannabinoids.
How does the endocannabinoid system work?
Cannabinoid receptors in the brain, also called CB1 receptors, outnumber many other types of receptors in our bodies meaning they play a significant role in essential bodily functions.
The Harvard Medical School explains it like this: ‘They act like traffic cops to control the levels and activity of most of the other neurotransmitters. This is how they regulate things: by immediate feedback, turning up or down the activity of whichever system needs to be adjusted, whether that is hunger, temperature or alertness.’
Endocannabinoids are the molecules that stimulate CB1 receptors to trigger these actions. CB2 receptors have also been discovered in the body’s immune tissues. They’re primarily responsible for controlling contractions and pain in several inflammatory bowel conditions and intestinal inflammation.
Both these receptors are effective in regulating different bodily functions. The only difference between CB1 and CB2 receptors is that the latter doesn’t give patients the high that CB1 receptors do.
How are endocannabinoids produced in the body?
Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring in the body and are found in various cells, tissues and organs. But while naturally produced by the body, they only become active once they bind with a cannabinoid receptor.
Experts are still looking into how this binding process happens. Some believe it occurs as the body’s natural response when a system is out of balance. The binding between endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors helps restore balance and promote better health.
One of the biggest wonders of the endocannabinoid system is its accuracy and precision in correcting any imbalances within the body. If the body’s temperature increases, the ECS can trigger responses to regulate it back to normal without affecting any other processes within the body. Once the problem is corrected, enzymes break the cannabinoids down to prevent them from overcorrecting and creating another imbalance.
What are the different uses of the endocannabinoid system?
Many research studies show that the ECS plays a significant role in processes that promote homeostasis in the body. Homeostasis maintains balance and stability within the body’s systems to support proper function. For instance, the body strives to maintain balance in blood pressure, blood sugar and temperature. Any imbalance in these ranges will break homeostasis and affect the body’s function, leading to specific signs and symptoms.
The ECS may regulate functions such as sleep, appetite, pain, mood, inflammation, immune response, learning, memory, fertility and metabolism. More studies are being done to discover how the ECS can be used for therapeutic purposes.
Cannabinoids are known to help in treating a wide range of medical conditions such as sleep disturbances, nausea and vomiting related to the effects of chemotherapy, chronic pain and muscle tightness.
The role of ECS in memory and learning
The ECS plays a significant role in memory and learning. In his bestseller, The Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan discusses an intriguing aspect of cannabis use – its potential to cause temporary memory disruptions. He suggests this effect could be beneficial, explaining that forgetfulness serves a crucial role in preventing our brains from becoming overwhelmed by the constant barrage of sensory data we encounter. The process of forgetting can be beneficial, especially in managing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This disorder is characterised by persistent, intrusive memories, which can lead to various adverse symptoms if they remain unresolved.
The role of ECS in hunger
Obesity, a prevalent global issue, can trigger many further health complications if not treated promptly. The drug rimonabant, designed to curb hunger by blocking the CB1 receptor, revealed this link. However, due to mood-related side effects including suicidal tendencies, it was withdrawn from the market. Medical experts continue to study the role of ECS in appetite to better understand these correlations in our bodies.
Can a patient be deficient in endocannabinoids?
Some medical experts proposed a theory called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD), which means that someone with low endocannabinoid levels can become susceptible to developing different adverse medical conditions.
A study published in 2016, backed by more than 10 years of research, suggested that this may explain how some patients suddenly develop conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and migraines.
In most cases, these medical conditions don’t have a specific or determined underlying cause and can resist treatment. These conditions may also occur concurrently in one person, which makes the situation more complicated.
Medical experts continue to research, test and develop effective solutions to address the symptoms and root causes of different medical conditions, especially those related to disruption in the function of endocannabinoids in the body.
The ECS is an intricate and complex regulator maintaining our physiological harmony. While we’re still uncovering the ECS’s full potential in governing our body’s functions, advanced studies are paving the way for groundbreaking medications. This scientific progress promises not just a transformative healthcare landscape but also an enhanced quality of life for many.
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This article is intended as general information and is not a substitute for medical advice from your treating doctor. You must always speak with your doctor about the appropriate treatment for you based on your individual health circumstances.