As research into the medicinal possibilities of cannabis finally accelerated despite continuing political pressures, a key question began to arise: How can one herb possibly impact such a wide variety of conditions? One theory which led to further research was that there could be some underlying human physiological system which was being impacted by cannabis in many different diseases. This search for answers to these important questions fortunately led scientists to the discovery of a previously unknown biological network. And it turns out that it is one of the more important physiological systems involved in establishing and maintaining human and animal health.
This endocannabinoid system was appropriately named after the plant that led to its discovery. In each type of tissue, this complex system performs varying and specific tasks. But a unifying principle tying all of these processes together appears to be homeostasis. This is the critical balancing act of maintaining a relatively stable internal environment despite wide fluctuations in the external environment. All vertebrate species share this endocannabinoid system as an important tool for adaptation to environmental challenges and shifts.
Endocannabinoids, and a corresponding intricate system of proteins known as cannabinoid receptors, are thus interwoven throughout the body. These receptors are embedded into cell membranes, and are possibly more numerous than any other receptor system. When cannabinoid receptors are activated, a wide variety of physiological responses can be triggered. So far research has identified two cannabinoid receptors. CB1 is mostly located in the nervous system, glands, gonads, organs, and connective tissues. CB2 is mostly found in the immune system and its associated tissues. Some tissues, however, also contain both CB1 and CB2 receptors, with each of them key to a different biological response. In addition, researchers are now postulating that there could be at least a third cannabinoid receptor waiting to be found.
Endocannabinoids — an abbreviation for endogenous cannabinoids – are the molecules made naturally by a body to activate these receptors. The two which are currently the best comprehended are anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) These are synthesized as needed within the cell membranes via arachidonic acid derivatives. Both of these molecules have localized effects, and a short half-life. They are soon degraded by the enzymes fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL)
This cannabinoid system promotes homeostasis in many ways that researchers are just beginning to grasp. Just one example is autophagy, which is a process by which a cell isolates part of its own substance to be self-digested and thus recycled. This process is actually aided by the cannabinoid system! Autophagy enables normal cells to thrive, facilitating a balance between the synthesis, degradation, and the ultimate recycling of cellular products. By contrast, this process is lethal with respect to malignant tumor cells. In that case, autophagy causes them to digest themselves, in what is effectively a biological suicide. In turn this elimination of cancer cells enhances homeostasis and vibrancy at the larger level of the body as a whole.
The endocannabinoid network has multitudinous and often interlocking activities in our nervous, immune, and organ systems. It actually might be best seen as a network of bridges between the mind and body. By viewing this system from that perspective, we can also perhaps more clearly illuminate how aspects of consciousness can powerfully promote health or disease. This blog will continue to explore the importance of this molecular system with regards to health. It will also carefully examine the continuing research into how medicinal cannabis and its natural compounds may impact a variety of health conditions via this network of cannabinoid receptors.
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