Human beings have been harnessing cannabis for its medicinal properties for millennia. Early records go all the way back to 2700 – 1500 B.C., and though it’s been used for such a long time research is still in its infancy as far as how the plant exactly affects the body. Scientists over the last few decades have identified many of the active chemicals in cannabis, called cannabinoids, and are zeroing in on how these substances interact with the human body and why they have the effects they do. The last 25 years of study have identified an entire system which interacts with a startling number of functions. Like the nervous system, the digestive system, or the cardiovascular system we learn about in school, this new system could be vital to proper functioning of the body. This is the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

Overview

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The ECS is a set of receptors and naturally occurring chemicals in our bodies which seems to be involved in a wide variety of physiological functions including the immune system, metabolism, sleep regulation, energy intake, and proper digestive function. ECS receptors (called CB1 and CB2) are present in the brain, liver, digestive tract, fatty tissues, and elsewhere, and Dr. Michael Beigel of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has stated that the ECS is, “involved in ALL physiological processes that have been investigated.”

We exist in a constant state of push and pull, our organs and systems swinging between action and rest. Cells are born and cells die, some functions are stimulated as other go dormant. Though it’s often useful for certain chemicals to spike (for example adrenaline flooding our system in moments we need to be more alert and more physically active) over the long term we function best when we are in balance. Endocannabinoids are chemicals that our bodies create (called anandamide and AG-2) that bind with ECS receptors and act as sort of safety valves to guide our bodies back to that state of balance, called homeostasis.

The Cannabis Plant

As it happens, the chemicals that exist in cannabis also bind with these ECS receptors. As of today roughly 80 cannabinoids have been discovered in the cannabis plant, chief among these being delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

cannabinoids

THC is best known as the psychoactive component in cannabis that creates the high, though it also has a range of other effects including reduction of pain and nausea, and appetite stimulation. CBD is the cannabinoid that is most talked about in medical cannabis. It’s the primary agent treating epilepsy and other seizure disorders, a wide range of neurological conditions, and a host of other illnesses.

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Though there has been an effort to extract and concentrate individual cannabinoids to harness the specific effects of each, it’s been theorized that these chemicals work best in combination with each other. Even cannabinoids that appear in only trace amounts in the plant are thought to interact in subtle ways with THC and CBD creating an “Entourage Effect” with the group enhancing each others’ beneficial effects and dampening each others’ negative effects. Since the resulting positives are greater than the sum of the individual cannabinoids, many in the current medical cannabis community prefer whole-plant solutions in place of concentrated single-cannabinoid pills or oils. This means smoking or vaping dry herb, or smoking or vaping oils and eating edibles that were not made from concentrates.

Scientific research regarding the endocannabinoid system is still very young, and breakthroughs are happening constantly. Mapping it and harnessing its full potential is the key to maximizing the effectiveness of medical cannabis.