The 12th Unknown
Updated: May 6
I'm willing to bet you've heard of the 11 body systems- you know, like the muscular system, the nervous system, the digestive system, and so on. These 11 systems have frequented our science textbooks since Elementary school and are widely known to keep our bodies functioning properly.
But what if I told you there was a 12th system, one that was not widely known but played an essential role in the functionality of all the rest?
Despite its discovery more than 28 years ago, this human body system has been disregarded; it's existence being acknowledged in only a handful of medical programs across the United States. Although this information has been swept under the rug for years, I'm here to teach you some basics- what I've learned about the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). This 600 million-year-old system is in charge of regulating mood, memory, appetite, digestion, stress, pain, and inflammation- it is absolutely essential to achieving homeostasis- or balance- in the body.
The ECS is the largest cellular communication system in the body.
Every single person reading this has an Endocannabinoid System! Regardless of your interactions with the Cannabis plant... and actually, this biological system extends to all vertebrates. Your ECS is there to respond to signals of stress, pain, sleep, appetite, and many others to keep you in line!
*Quick shoutout to the ECS for helping us remember to eat, fall asleep & forget traumatic experiences.*
To understand the Endocannabinoid System, you first have to meet the key players:
· Cannabinoid receptors- these guys hang out on the surface of cells. Ex. CB1 and CB2
· Endocannabinoids (ligands)- the prized messengers of the ECS. Ex. anandamide (AEA) and 2-AG
· Metabolic enzymes- to synthesize (make) and break down endocannabinoids. Ex. FAAH
As you can see in the graphic, the cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 are found throughout your body but are more concentrated around your central nervous system and gut area. CB1 receptors are actually the most abundant receptor type in the entire nervous system. These receptors hang out on the surface of cells and are patiently waiting for a message from an endocannabinoid.
The prefix endo means "within", and endocannabinoids are compounds synthesized within the human body. Endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG are neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors in order to elicit a response. These molecules really are prized messengers. Let's say your upstairs neighbor decides to have a Monday night rave. So, you ask them to turn the music down. Endocannabinoids are the equivalent to you saying 'chill out' in response to something stressful.
Anandamide has been coined the "bliss" molecule for the role it plays in memory, pleasure, motivation, etc. In fact, anandamide is what gives you the "bliss" feeling after intense exercise that we often attribute to a rush of endorphins. Anandamide also increases the formation of new nerve cells and exhibits anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties.
Our friend 2-AG binds primarily to the CB2 receptor and has been linked to our emotional states, inflammation control, and protection from seizures.
Endocannabinoids are a bridge between body and mind.
Now that you've got the basics of how this system works, you're probably thinking, if it's so significant, why have I never heard of it?
This is where other cannabinoids come into play. Unlike the endocannabinoids that we have already discussed, there are also phytocannabinoids that are not synthesized within the human body but instead come from the cannabis plant (phyto=plant). There are over 100 different phytocannabinoids, with the most well known being THC and CBD.
Since the ECS was discovered through studying the cannabis plant and phytocannabinoids such as THC (the psychoactive compound known for the "high" experienced when ingesting/smoking cannabis), you may be able to formulate an opinion on why this system is unmentionable among most curriculums.
The truth about phytocannabinoids: They can supplement your ECS in therapeutic ways.
Let's explore the "how" by focusing on the phytocannabinoid CBD:
CBD is a phytocannabinoid that can mimic endocannabinoids such as anandamide in order to produce similar effects. CBD doesn't directly trigger receptors CB1 or CB2 but instead modifies the receptor's ability to bind to cannabinoids. CBD works to inhibit an enzyme known as FAAH that exists to break down anandamide. Simply put, CBD can enhance the natural levels of anandamide (the "bliss" molecule!) in the brain.
This very process explains why the phytocannabinoid CBD is widely known for possessing anti-anxiety properties among many other calming effects.
This is also why your CBD-infused Oasis Coffee provides you with the perfect jitter-free energy every morning! #science
Although much remains to be discovered when it comes to CBD, the evidence is promising for alleviating conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, arthritis, autoimmune disease, overall stress, and many more.
This is a lot to take in, and new research is always emerging, but the takeaways here are:
1. You have an Endocannabinoid System that does an awesome job of keeping your body in balance
2. There are methods you can use to supplement this system in therapeutic ways!
All of the graphics used in this article are from a very informative and enjoyable TEDx Talk by Dr. Rachel Knox, MD, MBA.
If you are interested in reading more in-depth about the endocannabinoid system and the ability to supplement it using CBD, check out Project CBD!