Some of us smoke cannabis to relieve depression and anxiety. Some of us smoke for chronic pain relief. And some of us smoke just because we want to watch YouTube compilations of people falling off roller skates. Regardless of what motivates us to smoke, the effect we will feel depends on our endocannabinoid system.
You’ve likely heard this term tons of time before, but you maybe still don’t understand what it is exactly. You’re not the only one mystified-- even scientists are still trying to fully understand this complex biological system that directly interacts with THC and other cannabinoids.
What Does the Endocannabinoid System Do?
The ECS is complex, and no one yet knows how exactly it works. But we do know it’s linked to many important processes in our body.
- Metabolism and Appetite
- Chronic Pain and Inflammation
- Mood and Stress
- Memory and Learning
- Liver and Cardiovascular Function
- Bone Growth
- Reproductive System Function
- Nerve and Skin Function
All these functions are necessary for homeostasis-- a fancy word for describing the healthy balance in your body. If anything throws your body out of balance, like an injury for example, the ECS will be the hero who puts everything back in order.
But there’s another thing we can better understand when we look at these functions - how ECS influences our experience with cannabis.
Why does your endocannabinoid system make you high when you smoke?
The endocannabinoid system is composed of endocannabinoids, enzymes that synthesize them, and the cannabinoid receptors.
The main cannabinoid receptors effected by things like marijuana and hemp are CB1 and CB2.
THC is the main cannabinoid in cannabis, and a compound that gets us high. When it gets in our body, it binds to ECS receptors. The reason why it has such powerful effects is that it binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors.
We usually consider CB1 receptors to have a main impact on our mind, and CB2 receptors on our body. By binding to both, THC has a variety of effects on our body and mind.
These effects can be positive, such as euphoria, relaxation, pain reduction and better appetite. But we can also feel paranoia or anxiety, because we really can’t control how THC interacts with functions in our body. The enzymes that break down endocannabinoids like anandamine don’t work on THC, and that’s why it lingers on longer and has stronger effects.
As we know, CBD doesn’t make you high like THC. Also, it doesn’t interact with the ECS the same way as THC. Although we still don’t know exactly how it does interact, we don’t know it doesn’t bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors in the way THC does.
The details of how CBD works are still quite mysterious. One theory believes it binds to a receptor we still haven’t discovered, and others believe it prevents endocannabinoids to break down therefore boosting their effects. We currently have the most data on this second theory.
It was discovered CBD can affect the levels of endocannabinoids in the brain. It prevents the FAAH enzyme from working properly. This enzyme usually breaks down anandamine, so the anandamine levels become higher. Scientists believe CBD’s ability to inhibit the FAAH and increase levels of endocannabinoids is the main reason why it has prominent anti-anxiety effects.
CBD also influences non-cannabinoid receptors like serotonin receptors, another reason why it helps with mental health, as well as the TRPV1 receptor, responsible for pain and inflammation.
Endocannabinoids in Your Body
When we talk about endocannabinoids in the system, we’re not just talking about CBD, THC, and the other cannabinoids in cannabis. We’re talking about cannabinoids that naturally occur in our body and function as neurotransmitters, by sending messages between nerve cells. They impact our memory, thinking, coordination, sensory and time perception and pleasure.
One of the most important endocannabinoids we need to understand is anandamide. This neurotransmitter was discovered by a Dr. Raphael Mecholaum in the 90s-- the first person to identify THC. He saw that anandamide products a sense of joy, so it’s often called the bliss molecule.
Although andamine occurs naturally in the body and THC is taken by consumption, they share similar properties and are often called “twins”. They’re similar in that they both bind to the cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2. When they bind to the CB1 receptor, they create a sense of bliss.
But since the endocannabinoid system plays such an important role in the normal functioning of our nervous system, it results in other strong effects. One of them is the interference with the hippocampus, which enables us to form new memories and focus. That’s why we struggle to remember things, perform complex tasks, and use our chip card to pay for a Wendy's Baconator when we're high.
The Bottom Line
The endocannabinoid system plays a huge role in keeping our internal processes in balance. However, it’s complex, and we still know only a small part about what it is, how it works and how it interacts with cannabinoids find in cannabis.
Nevertheless, we hope we managed to demystify this system just a bit, or at least sparked your curiosity about what cannabis actually does in your body to make you feel the uplifting, relaxing, pain relieving effects we all enjoy.