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Let's Get This Party Started! The Endocannabinoid System

Well, I guess it's really not a party per se. But it is a starting point for a discussion about the science behind cannabis and what it does in our bodies. So let's get on with it.

Cannabis is a plant that has been used for thousands of years by many different cultures for a variety of reasons, long before microscopes and computers and scientists experimenting with white mice in a lab. Over these thousands of years there were respected men of different communities who made observations about cannabis and many other plants and the effects they had on humans.

Long before prescription drugs and the FDA and DEA there were healers (like Claire Fraser in Outlander) who used plant medicine to treat their patients. If you haven't watched Outlander, you are really missing out. By far the best time travel historical fiction drama of all times. But I digress.

Back to cannabis. In the 1960s THC was discovered by researchers, as then it was promptly outlawed, thanks to the Controlled Substances Act in the early 70s. THC was classified in this law as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, defined as a highly addicted substance with no known medicinal uses. I'm paraphrasing here, but that's the gist of it. Imagine what we could know about cannabis and science and treating sick people today if this abolishment never happened. Another great example of how politics can get in the way of science and really mess things up for a lot of people.

In the late 1980s, 1988 to be exact, there was a government-funded study at the St. Louis University of Medicine that found receptor sites on cell membranes of mammals. These receptor sites influence the activity of the cell itself. There are many different receptor sites that "fit" with different molecules.

Opioid receptor sites were discovered and later Cannabinoid receptors were discovered. Cannabinoid receptors were discovered using THC as the molecule and observing the interaction of THC with a particular receptor, originally known as a THC receptor and later renamed the CB1 receptor. This receptor is concentrated in certain regions of the brain, and interestingly enough, these brain regions correspond nicely with the physical and mental activities that are altered or moderated by cannabis. The CB1 receptor is found in the Hippocampus (responsible for memory), Cerebral Cortex (responsible for higher level cognition), Cerebellum (responsible for motor function), Basal Ganglia (responsible for movement), Hypothalamus (responsible for appetite), Amygdala (responsible for emotions), and also in smaller quantities in the Brain Stem, which controls breathing and heartbeat.

Later CB2 receptors were discovered - in the peripheral nervous system, the immune system, the gut, the spleen, the heart, the kidneys, the bones, the blood vessels, lymph cells, endocrine glands, and reproductive organs. THC stimulates these receptors as well, and the CB2 receptor is also the primary site of action of our favorite non-psychoactive cannabinoid, CBD.

Researchers have also discovered that our bodies product and use 2 cannabis-like substances, deemed endocannabinoids. One is very similar to THC and is named Anandamide. It works on the CB1 receptor. The other is known as 2-AG, short for 2-arachidonoylglycerol, which binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors.

So we know that our body has this intricate receptor system that interacts with cannabinoids, and we know that our body makes its own cannabinoids, known as endocannabinoids. These are the pieces of the Endocannabinoid System.

And it turns out that humans are not the only earthly creatures with the ECS. Every living creature with the exception of insects has an Endocannabinoid System.

So where do we go from here with this knowledge? Full speed ahead! Since the discovery of the ECS we've already been able to identify that this system regulates numerous biological processes, modulates perceptions of pain, stress, and hunger, affects sleep, circadian rhythm, bone density, body temperature, fertility, metabolism, mood, and memory, to name a few.

And the prevailing theory regarding many chronic and debilitating conditions is that dysfunction in the ECS may play a major role in the disease process. This goes for conditions like Migraines, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Osteoporosis. The ECS dysfunction at the root of these conditions could be resulting from too many receptors in an area, too few receptors in an area, too much Anandamide, too little Anandamide, too much 2-AG, too little 2-AG, or a combination of any of these, depending on the condition. Observing that these conditions often respond favorably to cannabis as a treatment suggests that there is definitely a connection.

So the party has been officially started now! You know the background and the backbone of cannabis and cannabinoids and using them as medicine. There is a whole lot more to know, and we've got nothing but time, but we'll save the rest for future posts. I hope you've learned something. Stick with me. It gets better.

The Canna Chemist

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