20 August 2013

The Endocannabinoid System: An Overview

The Endocannabinoid System: An Overview

The Endocannabinoid system is a central regulatory system that affects a wide range of biological processes. It consists of a group of molecules known as Cannabinoids as well as the Cannabinoid receptors that they bind to. Although Cannabis is a source of over sixty Cannabinoids (including THC and CBD [see below]) the human body produces a number of Cannabinoids as well. These endogenous Cannabinoids include Anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) and are present in all human beings. 

Decades of scientific research on the Endocannabinoid system has resulted in the discovery of two types of Cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. These receptors are found in various parts of the body, but are most prominent in the brain and immune system. Cannabinoid receptors act as binding sites for endogenous Cannabinoids as well as Cannabinoids found in Cannabis. When Cannabinoids bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors, they act to change the way the body functions. While Cannabinoid receptors are primarily expressed in the brain and immune system, researchers have identified Cannabinoid receptors in a variety of other places as well, including the peripheral nervous system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system and gastrointestinal and urinary tracts. Cannabinoid receptors continue to be identified in unique parts of the body as research on the Endocannabinoid system progresses.

Interestingly, the Endocannabinoid system is not unique to the human species. Research has shown that this system is common to all humans and vertebrate animals – and even some invertebrate animals – suggesting its significance in the process of evolution. Experts believe that natural selection has conserved the Endocannabinoid system in living organisms for 500 million years. Although the Endocannabinoid system affects a wide variety of biological processes (such as appetite and sleep), experts believe that its overall function is to regulate homeostasis. Homeostasis is a key element in the biology of all living things and is best described as the ability to maintain stable internal conditions that are necessary for survival. Disease is simply a result of some aspect of failure in achieving homeostasis, making the Endocannabinoid system a unique target for medical applications.
A primary example of the Endocannabinoid system’s role in homeostasis comes from research that has identified an over-expression of Cannabinoid receptors in the tumour cells of various cancer diseases, including lung cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Research has also shown that tumour growth can be inhibited and even reversed when Cannabinoids such as THC are administered. Experts believe that the over-expression of Cannabinoid receptors is an indicator of the Endocannabinoid system’s role as a biological defence system, providing strong support for the use of medical Cannabis.
Interestingly, research suggests that this defence system is not only useful in treating cancer, but may also be beneficial in the treatment of a wide variety of conditions. Current evidence points to the Endocannabinoid system as being a potential therapeutic target for the following list of disorders:
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Chronic Pain
  • Epilepsy
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Glaucoma
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Sleep disorders
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • And many, many more…

  • While the Endocannabinoid system has been thoroughly investigated in the medical field, many still question its role in the recreational use of Cannabis. Although its long-term effects continue to be debated, evidence shows that Cannabis is a surprisingly benign substance that poses no risk of overdose and minimal risk of addiction. Experts also believe that the psychoactive properties of Cannabis are most likely to be temporary and pose no risk of brain damage in the long run. Granted the use of Cannabis should still be approached with caution, evidence points to Cannabis as ultimately being safer than most commonly available substances, including caffeine, tobacco and alcohol!
    What is THC?

    Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of over 60 chemicals called cannabinoids found in Cannabis
    THC acts on the Endocannabinoid system of the human body to elicit its effects
    THC is produced by the female Cannabis plant
    THC acts mostly on the brain and is responsible for the 'high' that users experience
    THC is medically beneficial in a long list of disorders
    THC is non-toxic
    To date, there is little conclusive evidence of any long-term side effects of THC

    What is CBD?

    Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of over 60 chemicals called cannabinoids found in Cannabis
    CBD levels vary by strain
    CBD doesn’t get you 'high' – it is not a psychoactive substance
    CBD counteracts some of the psychoactive effects of THC
    CBD is non-toxic
    Studies show that CBD has medical potential in a long list of disorders

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