The Endocannabinoid System and Medical Cannabis

In 1964, Raphael Mechoulam discovered two cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which later led to his discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in 1988. Mechoulam discovered that phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors in the ECS to maintain homeostasis, or stability, in the body by regulating the way our organs function. Medical cannabis contains over 100 cannabinoids that may provide many beneficial effects for various symptoms associated with conditions approved under the Compassionate Use Program, including inflammation, pain, muscle spasms and more. 

Three Components of the Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system is essential in helping keep our bodies functioning at optimal levels by regulating our mood, energy levels, immune function, blood pressure, how we experience pain, stress, hunger and more. Although the endocannabinoid system is still a relatively new subject to many, research suggests it is one of the most crucial systems in maintaining several body functions. The three main components of the ECS are:

  1. Endocannabinoids which are naturally formed by the body and expressed throughout the central nervous and peripheral nervous systems. They help carry signals between our nerve cells to keep all internal functions running smoothly.
  2. Cannabinoid receptors which are present throughout the body and embedded in our cell membranes. Phytocannabinoids found in medical cannabis like THC and CBD attach to cannabinoid receptors in the ECS.
    • CB1 receptors are abundant in the central nervous system (CNS), particularly in the cortex, basal ganglia, hippocampus and cerebellum. 
    • CB2 receptors are mainly found on white blood cells, tonsils and the spleen and have been shown to regulate immune cell function.
  3. Metabolic enzymes break down endocannabinoids once they have carried out their function.

The Endocannabinoid System and Pain Regulation

The endocannabinoid system is vital in regulating pain sensation by activating cannabinoid receptors. Medical cannabis contains over 100 phytocannabinoids and, when ingested, the endocannabinoid system helps to regulate and transport them throughout the body. Phytocannabinoids found in the cannabis plant like CBD and THC bind to cannabinoid receptors in our body and can enhance or influence the endocannabinoid system’s function.

Studies suggest that the endocannabinoids produced in our bodies, AEA and 2-AG, play a critical role in suppressing pain. Clinical studies also consistently demonstrate the efficacy of cannabis and cannabinoid receptors in reducing diverse neuropathic pain conditions in humans. Therefore, not only may medical cannabis help reduce pain, but it may also help patients decrease the need for opioids or other traditional pain medications.

Medical cannabis may also help regulate symptoms such as:

  • Headaches
  • Seizures
  • Muscle spasms
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors

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