12 April 2015
5 Things About The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is one of the most important components of the body. The number of physiological processes it is responsible for or involved in is truly staggering. Understanding the ECS is important for both cannabis users and non-users alike, as its impact on health is unparalleled. Given its integral roles in biology, the ECS appears in many surprising and unexpected places.
The Endocannabinoid System Promotes Embryonic Development
From the earliest stages of life, the ECS participates in many critical life-sustaining functions. Even the successful implantation of the embryo into the uterus requires endocannabinoid activity. Interestingly, the CB1 receptor, which is responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis, promotes brain development by regulating the differentiation of neural progenitor (stem) cells and guiding synaptogenesis. After birth, endocannabinoid activation of the CB1 receptor initiates milk suckling. The remarkable involvement of the ECS in development is a testament to how important it is to human life.
The time at which the ECS appeared in evolution shows how integral the system is not just to human life, but higher-level organisms in general. Due to the presence of cannabinoid receptor-like proteins in nematodes and sea squirts, it is likely the ECS began evolving 600 million years ago. Since the ECS is involved in connecting other bodily systems and facilitating communication, it makes sense the earliest remnants of it appeared so early in evolution.
Neurons usually communicate in a one-way direction. Presynaptic neurons release neurotransmitters that attach to receptors on postsynaptic neurons. Endocannabinoids go in the reverse direction, travelling from the postsynaptic neuron to the presynaptic neuron. This process is known as retrograde feedback and it enables control of neural transmission. For example, if a neuron is sending messages too quickly, the receiving neuron can send an endocannabinoid to the sending neuron telling it to slow down.
The Endocannabinoid System Helps Protect Against Cancer
Cancerous cells are defined by their tendency to replicate uncontrollably and spread throughout the body. There are hundreds of different types of cancer, and while each has distinguishing factors, many similarities exist as well. For example, many types express cannabinoid receptors like CB1 and CB2 on their cell membranes. Endocannabinoids like anandamide bind to these receptors to inhibit cancer cell growth. The effectiveness of a strong ECS on cancer survival was described in a 2006 study. Researchers found that patients with naturally high expression levels of CB1 and CB2 receptors had significantly better disease-free survival than patients with low expression levels.
Despite its ubiquitous role in human physiology, research indicating the existence of the ECS was not published until 1992. This is when the first endogenous, self-made cannabinoid anandamide was discovered and in subsequent years several other endocannabinoids have been discovered.
Due to the novelty of the ECS, most medical schools do not teach much about it, let alone even give it mention. This is part of the reason why cannabis medicine has not been more widely accepted within the mainstream medical community. Thankfully, given the quickly rising accumulation of scientific and anecdotal evidence, it is only a matter of time before cannabis is made available as a standard medication.