The endocannabinoid system is part of the body’s immune system and is a communication mechanism geared to maintaining homeostasis, driven by our own internally produced cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors. It might be the most important system on the physiological level for creating and maintaining human health. Endocannabinoids and their corresponding receptors are found extensively throughout the human body. They are mainly concentrated in the brain, organs, glands, connective tissues and immune cells.
Before diving more deeply into the subject of the endocannabinoid system it’s worthwhile having a little understanding about the mechanisms the body uses to communicate with itself. For a more detailed description check out Brain Receptors-A Primer. by Kayt Sukel.
Synaptic transmission is the process where a neurochemical ( brain chemical) is released into the synapse. The synapse is made up of two brain cells and the narrow space found between them. The transmission process is not complete until the neurochemical joins together with a receptor on the receiving postsynaptic neuron.
Neurotransmitters and receptors are often described by using a lock and key metaphor, the neurotransmitter being the key and the receptor being the lock. A single neurotransmitter may bind with several types of receptors and have a different effect depending on their location in the body.
The endocannabinoid system connects complex functions of our organs (physical), immune system (chemical), and nervous system (electrical) and acts as a bridge or gateway between our body and mind. Once we understand how this system works we can see the interconnectedness of states of consciousness and how they can promote health or disease and may be a key to our holistic understanding of the body/mind organism.
Brain cells communicate by sending chemical messages with each other and the rest of the body. These chemical transmissions regulate and control everything we feel, think and do.
Typically the chemicals or Neurotransmitters are released from a neuron (a presynaptic cell) they travel across the synapse or small gap and attach themselves to receptors on the surface of a nearby neuron (postsynaptic cell) The neuron is activated and the message is passed along.
The Endocannabinoid system works in reverse or backwards. Cannabinoids, the messenger chemicals of the body’s endocannabinoid system are manufactured from fat cells in the postsynaptic neuron. They are then released backwards to the presynaptic neuron, where they then attach to cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2.
The endocannabinoid system was discovered by Dr. Ralph Mechoulam an Israeli organic chemist famous for isolating isolating and synthesizing THC, and explaining the chemical structure of cannabidiol in 1963.
In 1992, the first endocannabinoid, Anandamide, was discovered in Dr Mechoulam’s laboratory in Israel. A second endocannabinoid 2-AG (2-Arachidonoylglycerol), was discovered in by Shimon Ben-Shabat, one of his PhD students and reported in 1994-1995.
The endocannabinoid system works through two types of receptors found in our body CB1 and CB2. Another receptor GPR55 may actually be a third cannabinoid receptor affecting blood pressure and bone density.
In 1990 the CB1 receptor was discovered by Professor Allyn Howlett and her graduate student William Devane, concentrated in the Brain and Central nervous system.
CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain, nervous system and glands although they are also both present in the male and female reproductive organs. They modulate and moderate the perception of pain.
These receptors were found to be concentrated in the hippocampus area of the brain related to our memory, cerebral cortex related to our higher cognition and brain functioning, the cerebellum that affects our motor coordination, basal ganglia affecting our physical movement, the hypothalamus related to appetite and the amygdala that influences our emotions. There are hardly any cannabinoid receptors in the brainstem which controls our breathing and heart rate.
The CB2 receptor was discovered in 1993 by a research group from Cambridge, they were searching for a second cannabinoid receptor that could explain the function and pharmacological properties of THC tetrahydrocannabinol. The discovery of this receptor helped explain on a molecular level the already known effects of cannabinoids on the immune system. The CB2 receptors populate the immune system and related peripheral organs.