What is the Endocannabinoid System?

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

Every second, over 37,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (37 thousand billion billion) chemical reactions are taking place in your body.

The human heart averages 115,200 beats per day, and manages to transport 2,000 gallons of blood in that time. Cells are created, destroyed and repurposed, to the extent that cell turnover affects upwards of 50 billions cells per day. All of these processes require a significant amount of energy, meaning that the average person requires over 730,000 calories in one year! (Enough to power a standard microwave oven for 51 minutes!)

Naturally, something as complicated as the human body needs some oversight – and that’s where the Endocannabinoid System comes into play.

Despite its recent discovery, the endocannabinoid system is one of the oldest and most prolific systems in the animal kingdom. It first evolved hundreds of millions of years ago and is present in more than half of all animal species, from fish and invertebrate sea creatures to mammals, birds, reptiles, and beyond (insects, however, really missed the mark).  

In the human body, cannabinoid receptors appear in almost every major tissue and organ – so, as you might imagine, it’s pretty darn important.

To be more specific, the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is a system of neurotransmitters, receptors, and enzymes involved in cellular communication and chemical balance, or homeostasis.

Although known as the endocannabinoid system for its relationship with plant cannabinoids, this system is much more complicated and essential than its interactions with cannabis. As opposed to physiological systems with highly specified functions and organs (i.e. the bones of the skeletal system or the kidneys and tubules that comprise the urinary system), the ECS is involved with the communication between our nervous system and organs, and as such affects almost every day-to-day biological process in the human body!

Homeostasis

To fully understand the role of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS), it will help to more completely understand homeostasis itself.

Homeostasis is derived from the greek words homoios and stasis, which when taken together roughly translate to “maintaining the same state.”

To maintain life, conditions within the body have to be kept within a certain range. It might help to think of this as the “Goldilocks Zone” – not too hot, not too cold, but just right.  For example, if too little or too much water is housed within a cell, that cell may wither or explode. Too cold and essential life processes would become dangerously slow; too warm and proteins would start to degrade – sounds dangerous, right? Well, it is. But thanks to our miraculous bodies, this delicate balance is rarely disrupted.

This seems pretty cut and dry until you consider how rapidly our bodies have to adapt with a changing environment. If you workout for 45 minutes of intense cardio or guzzle 2 litres of water in 30 minutes, your internal hydration and electrolyte balance is going to change significantly. And yet we don’t crumble to dust or explode from over hydration, which (at least by my measure) is great news!

Now take that Goldilocks metaphor and extend it to… well, almost every system in the human body. Inflammation, temperature, chemical messaging, immune response, energy levels, food intake, excitability, hormone levels – all of these and more are regulated by the endocannabinoid system.

If you start shivering when you’re cold, that’s your ECS getting you back up to temperature. When you feel hungry after skipping breakfast, that’s your ECS reminding you to fuel up and maintain your energy levels.

When you look at it through this lens, it’s no wonder that cannabinoids are being investigated as potential treatments for a range of medical conditions, especially chronic health conditions that result from a consistent disruption in endocannabinoid signalling.

In the next installment of my ECS (EndoCannabinoid System or “Extra Cool Science!” – take your pick) blog series we’ll be take a closer look at the functions of this complex and widespread system, as well as some ECS tidbits and trivia.

Until then, stay weird, wonderful and curious!

About the author

Lana Tong is an aspiring Endocannabinoid Psychopharmacologist and Squirrel Behavioral Therapist based in Victoria, British Columbia. She’s passionate about cannabis as a medicine, entheogen, food, fiber crop, and so much more. Lana hopes to one day swim in a pool filled with organic CBD-infused coconut oil – we all have dreams, right?

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