The Endocannabinoid System: Why Everyone Should Know About It

According to Dustin Sulak, osteopathic doctor and Diplomat of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine, the endogenous (internal) cannabinoid system or The Endocannabinoid System is “perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”

Dr. Sulak lectures nationally on the endocannabinoid system and medical marijuana. In a recent article, he explains why this system is so important and what it has to do with cannabis.

It so happens that the endocannabinoid system has everything to do with cannabis. It was scientists studying the effects of cannabis that led to the discovery of this physiologic system in the late 1980s, arguably one of the greatest achievements of medical science in recent history.

It is no accident that it bears the name of the plant that led to its discovery. So what makes this system so important?

The Importance of the Endocannabinoid System

“The endocannabinoid system so far is the only endogenous system of chemical signals that is involved in everything,” says Vincenzo di Marzo, a leading researcher at the National Research Council of Italy, who has been studying the subject for over 20 years.

A 2006 review of the endocannabinoid system as a target of pharmacotherapy shows how extensive its influence is. Metabolism, the central nervous system, the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, the gastrointestinal system, the musculoskeletal system, and other areas of the body are all impacted by the endocannabinoid system.

Diseases as diverse as obesity, stroke, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, asthma, schizophrenia, addictions, glaucoma, cancer, and arthritis as well as pain, inflammation, insomnia, and nausea are just a sampling of what can potentially be treated through modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system.

Not coincidentally, cannabis can be used to treat all of these conditions where it takes a whole slew of pharmaceuticals to do so, often less effectively and with greater side effects. How can one herb do so much?

It was scientists studying the effects of cannabis that led to the discovery of this physiologic system in the late 1980s, arguably one of the greatest achievements of medical science in recent history.

The Role of Cannabis in the Endocannabinoid System

You could say that the endocannabinoid system is like a lock and key system into which cannabis fits. This system consists of endocannabinoids – the biochemicals our body makes (the key) and the receptors they stimulate (the lock). Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells.

The two most well-known endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). However, phytocannabinoids (plant-based cannabinoids) as found in cannabis, as well as synthetic cannabinoids found in pharmaceuticals such as Marinol, also interact with and have an effect on these cannabinoid receptors.

There are at least two cannabinoid-specific receptors that scientists know of, each of which has a different action. According to Leaf Science:

CB1 receptors are responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects. They are present in many areas of the brain and play a role in memory, mood, sleep, appetite and pain sensation.

CB2 receptors are responsible for marijuana’s anti-inflammatory effects. They are found in immune cells and work to reduce inflammation.”

Ultimately, the job of the endocannabinoid system is to promote homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.

It accomplishes this through a variety of tasks and processes, depending on the tissue type. At the intersection of the body’s various systems, the endocannabinoid system also allows communication and coordination between different cell types. In the case of an injury, for example, three different mechanisms of action on three different cell types can be observed – all for the purpose of minimizing the pain and damage caused by the injury.

The endocannabinoid system’s goal of homeostasis is what accounts for the demonstrated ability of cannabinoids to kill cancer cells while keeping healthy cells alive.

Beyond Curing Disease

Dr. Sulak believes that beyond curing disease, cannabis can even help prevent disease and promote health through stimulating the endocannabinoid system.

Please stay posted as we explore the preventative and health-enhancing possibilities of cannabis in future articles.