How does Cannabis work?

Understanding the Endocannabinoid system


Endocannabinoid (pronounced: end-oh-can-AB-in-oid) is a long word with a somewhat complex definition—but whether you’re an experienced “canna-seur” or simply canna-curious, you’ll want to hear us out. Why? Because the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the primary system in your body that interacts with cannabis and thereby determines its effects on you. Getting to know your unique ECS will help you better calibrate your medicine for optimal effects.

What is the ECS?

First, let’s talk about what the ECS is and what it does for you. In humans and other mammals, the ECS is a complex system of naturally-occurring chemicals, receptors, and enzymes that’s mainly found in the central nervous system. Because it was discovered only in the 1990s, researchers are still learning about the ECS—and there’s a lot we don’t know. But what we do know is fascinating.

The ECS plays an important role in regulating functions like:

  • Sleep
  • Mood
  • Reproduction and fertility
  • Appetite
  • Stress
  • Pain signaling
  • Memory
  • Inflammation
  • …and more

Essentially, the ECS helps our bodies maintain a stable internal environment when faced with environmental stressors.

When your physiology gets out of balance—let’s say you’re overly tired, stressed, or in pain—your ECS helps restore you to a sound physiological place.

It does this by releasing endogenous cannabinoids, or cannabis-like compounds produced by our own bodies.

That’s right,

the human body makes its own cannabinoids, very similar to the ones found in the cannabis plant.

The remarkable similarities between our endogenous cannabinoids and the ones found in cannabis may be one of the reasons humans have been using the plant for medicine and ritual for thousands of years. Some go so far as to say that humans and cannabis “co-evolved”—an inspiring idea, if you ask us.

Naturally-occurring cannabinoids in the human body

Our bodies’ two main endogenous cannabinoids (lipid-based neurotransmitters, if you want to get technical about it) are called 2-arachidonoylglycerol (or 2-AG) and anandamide—aka the “bliss molecule.” The name anandamide comes from the Sanskrit word, ananda (bliss)—which speaks to endogenous cannabinoids’ role. When your body is unduly stressed, the ECS is designed to release 2-AG and anandamide to help you come back to balance, also known as homeostasis. It does this by binding to CB1 receptors in the central nervous system (located in the brain and spinal cord) and CB2 receptors in the peripheral nervous system (scattered through the body and also found in the brain, immune system, and GI tract, among other spots). When your endogenous cannabinoids bind to these receptors, they initiate your return to homeostasis.

Sometimes, a larger volume of anandamide gets released and causes a temporary “elevated” or blissful feeling similar to the euphoria many people enjoy with cannabis. In fact, the fabled “runner’s high” after intense exercise is partially the result of lots of circulating anandamide. Some cannabinoids—particularly THC—bind to the same CB1 and CB2 receptors that our endogenous cannabinoids do, and thereby spark the suite of feel-good effects most people associate with the right dose.

Phyto-cannabinoids—THC, CBD, and more

You may be wondering: if we all have naturally-occurring cannabinoids, what’s the role for phyto-cannabinoids (aka plant-based cannabinoids) from cannabis—like THC, CBD, CBG, CBN, and others?

Well, here’s the catch: 2-AG and anandamide do wonderful things for us, but they degrade quickly. What’s more, our chronically stressed modern lifestyles may be depleting our endocannabinoid stores even more dramatically. According to Ethan Russo, MD, a pioneering cannabis researcher, many of us could be operating with a chronic shortage of endocannabinoids because of the physical, mental, and emotional stressors baked into the way we live.

Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency theory

Indeed, a 2011 study showed endocannabinoid abnormalities in people with depression, schizophrenia, and other mental health conditions. While more research is needed, that study offers a clue to why cannabis seems to be helpful for some people with mental health concerns: phyto-cannabinoids supplement our endogenous cannabinoids so that—in theory, at least—crucial deficiencies can be corrected.
Because 2-AG has been shown to play an important role for the immune system, it’s also been theorized that endocannabinoid deficiency might be implicated in autoimmune conditions. It’s too early to know for sure, but promising early research into the effects of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids on people with autoimmune conditions may lead to even more therapeutic uses of the plant. For some people with autoimmune issues, pharmaceuticals tend to fall short of restoring a full quality of life because they address the symptoms, not the cause. It’s possible—while not yet proven—that regular consumption

of phyto-cannabinoids could help support better health outcomes for some of these patients. Investigating clinical endocannabinoid deficiency may also help us solve the puzzle behind difficult-to-explain conditions like migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and others.

How to support your ECS

Because phyto-cannabinoids, like THC, are molecularly similar to our endogenous cannabinoids and bind to the same receptors, it makes a lot of sense that THC also affects sleep, mood, appetite, stress, sexual health, pain signaling, memory, and inflammation. CBD, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors; instead, it may play more of a role in preserving our endogenous cannabinoids by slowing and preventing their breakdown so they can remain in our systems without degrading as quickly—thereby helping us feel better for a longer period of time.

In this way, some people consume cannabis as a sort of supplementation routine. Indeed, according to medical cannabis expert, Dustin Sulak, DO, the right dose of cannabinoids may help upregulate your ECS to function optimally.

Other practices that may support a healthy ECS include eating a diet rich in essential fatty acids and dark chocolate, practicing yoga, meditating, receiving massage or acupuncture, socializing, and participating in exercise that you enjoy. (According to Dr. Sulak, enjoyment is crucial; if you don’t enjoy it, your body interprets exercise as “stress,” and it won’t provide the same boost to your ECS).

Getting to know your ECS

Your ECS will not respond in the same way as that of your spouse, your best friend, your budtender, or even your medical marijuana doctor—so the best way to get to know your ECS and its unique response to cannabis is to experiment. Youkti is here to help.

To arrive at your sweet spot for symptom relief (or whatever else you seek from the plant), we suggest you:

  • Try a variety of cannabinoids
  • Vary the ratios between different cannabinoids
  • Learn about the different methods of intake (i.e., vaporizing; smoking; or taking an edible, capsule, spray, or tincture, etc.)
  • Titrate your dosage slowly
  • Easily track each session’s effectiveness, as well as the overall effectiveness of your medicine, by using the Youkti app

Above all, follow the most important guideline to start low and go slow, and you’ll soon find yourself an empowered and confident cannabis consumer.
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