This article is the first in a series on the topics of cannabis, the endocannabinoid system, and cannabinoids, by Adam Pfister.
Part 1 – Your Endocannabinoid System
Can you guess who possesses hair, a neocortex, three middle ear bones, and an endocannabinoid system? Every mammal on the planet, that’s who. The endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in regulating pain, inflammation, appetite, mood, memory, and stress. This system is able to down-regulate (decrease) stress-related signals that lead to chronic inflammation and certain types of pain(1). Chronic inflammation can cause all sorts of health problems, including allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes. Whether you’re physically tense or mentally stressed, the endocannabinoid system plays an important role in how you feel from day to day.
“Endo” stands for endogenous, which means inside your body. “Cannabinoids” are chemicals produced by your body that connect to receptors in the endocannabinoid system, thereby producing various effects. Think of cannabinoids as keys that unlock specific keyholes (receptors). The endocannabinoid system is composed of two main receptor sites, or keyholes, called CB1 and CB2. In marijuana, there are 113 known cannabinoids that unlock and activate these receptors. The two main cannabinoids found in Maryjane that mimic the naturally occurring cannabinoids in your body are THC and CBD. Importantly, THC is the only psychoactive cannabinoid (meaning, you get high).
Your body naturally produces its own version of THC, called anandamide. In ancient Sanskrit, ananda means “bliss.” In essence, your body produces its own “happy” chemical. This mood enhancement is mimicked when you consume THC-rich cannabis, which unlocks the CB1 receptor. Anandamide can also be found in chocolate and is said to be active during yoga and running, producing the “runner’s high.” However, proceed with caution when attempting the trifecta of eating chocolate and smoking a joint while out on your morning jog. Occasionally, one can have too much of a good thing. Plus, your neighbors will probably look at you funny.
Interestingly, the CB1 receptors appear not only to be responsible for the mood-enhancing effects of cannabis but also negative, dysphoria-inducing episodes(2). Ever get a little too stoned and end up locked in a staring contest with your refrigerator while questioning your existence? That is a dysphoria-inducing episode. On a good note, CB1 receptors are sparse or nonexistent in the brain stem, medulla, and thalamus(3), which are ancient parts of the brain responsible for keeping you alive. Think breathing, blinking, and blood pressure. This helps explain the absence of life-threatening effects on vital physiological functions(4) when you eat one too many pot brownies and end up three hours on the couch feeling like an extra from The Walking Dead. You may look like a zombie to your friends, but no one on record has ever died solely from a THC overdose(5).
Now, let’s talk about CBD. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the main cannabinoid that unlocks the CB2 receptor in the endocannbinoid system. Among other actions, including regulating pain, CB2 receptors are thought to serve an important beneficial role in immune function and inflammation(6). CB2 receptors are found mostly in the peripheral tissues and organs throughout the body. They do not preferentially connect with THC, which is why a healthy dose of CBD can be beneficial, even to pets, without altering the mind. CBD is the magic cannabinoid that can help regulate pain, inflammation, and stress without getting you “high,” so you can still perform at work, take care of the kids, or attend class mentally sharp as a machete.
To summarize, your body has a special endocannabinoid system which regulates physiological responses like pain, inflammation, mood, and stress. Bad things can happen when this system gets out of whack. The endocannabinoid system produces its own “happy” chemical similar to THC when you’re out for a jog or getting your downward dog on. Consuming THC mimics the effects of this “happy” chemical. The other main chemical in cannabis is CBD, which does not get you stoned. It can help alleviate pain and inflammation, seizures, anxiety, stress, tension, insomnia, headaches, nausea, and cramps (but wait, there’s more!) all while going about your day clear-minded and on your game. Armed with a bit of knowledge and some personal experimentation, you can more consciously regulate your own endocannabinoid system with the keys of THC and CBD. As a result, you may find you experience a healthier and more prosperous life.
Adam Pfister is happy to shed some light on the wonderful (and sometimes overwhelming) world of cannabis. He has proudly been involved in the legal cannabis market in Portland, Oregon since its inception over three years ago, both managing a recreational dispensary and owning a CBD-based capsule company called AP Caps. He believes in the healing power of cannabis, stemming from the combination of personal experience, countless stories from customers, and research-backed science. Adam’s goal is to help improve people’s quality of life through education and the responsible use of cannabis. He is certain that we are only scratching the surface of potential this great plant possesses.
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