More and more states are legalizing adult-use marijuana, which means more and more people in the U.S. are becoming curious about marijuana products. What is in them that makes a person high? Isn’t marijuana physically dangerous to the human mind and body? How can marijuana be a viable medical treatment?
Fortunately, all those questions are easily answered if you know a bit about the human endocannabinoid system.
What Is the Endocannabinoid System?
Undoubtedly, you know a bit about some systems of the human body, like the nervous system, which sends messages between the brain and the body, or the digestive system, which transforms food into energy. The endocannabinoid (EC) system is like these — but a bit more diverse in its objectives.
In truth, we might not know about the EC system at all were it not for the rise in marijuana use in the 1960s. The increased interest around the drug caused researchers to identify the component of cannabis that causes the famous high: delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Not long after, researchers tracked THC to the sites in the body it affects.
After prolonged study, scientists now understand that the EC system is closely linked to the proper function of various bodily systems, including the nervous system, the immune system, the respiratory system, the digestive system and more. It does this by producing endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG, which help cells communicate more efficiently and effectively.
There are two types of EC receptors: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are located almost exclusively in different parts of the brain, where they can affect a wide variety of systems Researchers have also found some CB1 receptors in the liver, kidneys and lungs. Meanwhile, CB2 receptors are largely present around cells relating to the immune system, like the spleen and bone marrow. This likely indicates that some endocannabinoids are specifically for immune response while other endocannabinoids are generally beneficial to all systems.
How Does Marijuana Affect the Endocannabinoid System?
As mentioned above, the endocannabinoid system was first discovered (not to mention named) thanks to cannabinoids, or chemical compounds unique to marijuana. To date, researchers have identified 113 unique cannabinoids, but only about eight of them seem to have any effect on the human body — and of these, researchers have primarily focused their attention on two: THC and cannabidiol, or CBD.
Currently, the only cannabinoid known to contribute to marijuana’s psychoactive effects is THC. This is due to the manner in which THC interacts with the EC system. When you smoke marijuana, eat an edible or dose with THC oil or some other concentrate, you introduce THC into your system. This THC rushes to your CB1 receptors and binds to them in a higher concentration than most endocannabinoids, thus interrupting the normal function of various bodily systems and making you feel high.
In many ways, this interruption can be exceedingly beneficial. For instance, if you are experiencing chronic pain, THC can crowd out those messages and help you feel relaxed and pain-free. If your digestive system is making you feel nauseated or preventing you from developing an appetite, THC can again eliminate overwhelming negative sensations and help your brain send the messages you truly need. The high THC provides can be fun in its own right, but there are many ways that THC can be an effective treatment for a variety of otherwise unmanageable conditions.
The second most prevalent cannabinoid is CBD, and despite its availability around the U.S. and its popularity as a cure-all, researchers know much less about this compound than about THC. Previously, it was believed that CBD bound to CB2 receptors in the body, but further research seems to indicate that the chemical doesn’t bond to the EC system at all. Instead, it is possible that CBD stimulates the body to produce more of its own endocannabinoids, thus facilitating its own ability to heal itself. Already, CBD is used in an FDA-approved medication for childhood epilepsy, but it seems to have applications for many ills.
Because the discovery of the EC system is so recent, we still have much to learn about how the EC system functions within the human body — and how cannabinoids affect the EC system. As restrictions on marijuana loosen, more laboratories are gaining access to the drug, meaning it is becoming easier for researchers to truly understand how THC, CBD and other cannabinoids are interacting with human systems. For now, it is clear that marijuana can help people suffering from various ailments — that neither THC nor CBD is dangerous to the human body and that they actually work with existing systems for an effective medical treatment as well as a safe, fun high.