Our body was created for the use of cannabis. Like a smartphone has apps for communication, productivity, health, and education, our body has receptors ready for the consumption of cannabis. And yours does, too, thanks to the Endocannabinoid system which naturally resides in the human body and is actively regulating basic bodily functions.
Allow me to explain, the human body is made of many systems that allow us to live — the digestive system, circulatory system, exoskeletal system, to name a few. One system was recently discovered in the late 1900s: the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). The namesake of this system comes from the plant from which it was discovered, and it exists and is active whether we ingest cannabis or not. The ECS serves the homeostasis of our body and mind, playing a role in our sleeping and eating habits, along with memory and mood. We need to give this system more attention and credit, along with cannabis, so we can look at our body with fresh eyes — that was born to feel good and function properly.
Have you ever wondered why our bodies react to cannabis in the first place? What occurs in our blood and organs to make us feel stress relief, hunger, or relaxation? You’ve found the right article.
Our bodies automatically produce endogenous (which means originating internally) cannabinoids, also known as endocannabinoids. Until today there have been discovered two types of these molecules in our body: anandamide and AG-2. These short-lived, signaling molecules bind to one of two types of specific receptors throughout the body. The first is CB1, found mostly in the central nervous system which is responsible for motor activity, pain perception, stress response, and memory. The second receptor, CB2, is found mainly in the gut, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, and even reproductive organs, regulating our immune response. Once our self-produced cannabinoids or consumed ones meet a receptor, well that’s when the magic happens.
The so cold magic can be inflammatory pain relief from altered pain perception, appetite regulation from elevated hunger, or a reduction in anxiety, for starters and even ceasing tremor and seizures. The magic that occurs differs depending on which receptor is engaged, and on an individual basis. Over time, the engagement of cannabinoids with their receptors leads to long term benefits such as substance abuse recovery, eating disorder recovery, seizure control, and mental health disorders. Once the cannabinoid has performed its job, it gets broken down by one of two enzymes, fatty acid amide hydrolase or monoacylglycerol acid lipase.
While the reception of cannabis differs between people, one thing remains certain: the presence of this system shows that our bodies are built, ready, and are actually welcoming cannabis. But in order to even know this system exists, much research had to be done. So let’s take a step back and learn how the endocannabinoid system was even discovered.
For thousands and thousands of years, hemp was farmed for textiles and trade. The versatile plant could be used to produce fabrics, strong rope, paper, and even jewelry. But people began to use the extract for religious and healing powers. Turns out, cannabis is actually one of the oldest medicinal herbs in existence. The earliest evidence for a medicinal use of cannabis dated 2459-2203 BCE and found in an ancient grave in the Netherlands where archaeologists found cannabis used to relieve the pain of a very ill person. The earliest record of the plant being consumed for this purpose can be found in De Materia Medica, a 5-volume encyclopedia on drugs, written by ancient Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides. These volumes were published around 77 AC. Volume 3 describes cannabis indica: “The root (boiled and applied) is able to lessen inflammation, dissolve oedema, and disperse hardened matter around the joints.”
Some of the earliest, indigenous peoples knew cannabis had an effect on our bodies, they just didn’t know why. This curiosity spawned much research, discovery, and even a whole new marketplace.
For decades leading up to the 1980s, US government agency the National Institute of Drug Abuse subsidized studies conducted around the negative effects of cannabis to dissuade people from consuming it. However, the research findings fueled the polar opposite result. In 1963 Scientists Raphael Mechoulam and Y. Gaoni identified one property from cannabis: cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD. The following year they isolated Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC determining its structure and stereochemistry. Prof. Mechoulam extracted the psychoactive compound, brought it home, and had his wife bake it into a cake for the first observational clinical research of this compound.
The discovery of CBD and THC led to further research to figure out exactly how and why this substance affects the body. Saint Louis University School of Medicine researchers Allyn Howlett and William Devane discovered the first cannabinoid receptor (CB1) — finding that the brain has an abundance of cannabinoid receptors, more so than any other neurotransmitter receptor. In 1990, Lisa Matsuda of the National Institute of Mental Health publicized that her team had found the specific DNA sequence that makes up a THC-sensitive receptor. And it wasn’t discovered in a human, but instead, a rat. That’s right. Her team created genetically modified rats that lacked the receptor and found that the THC had no impact, and concluded that rats, humans, and every other animal excluding insects have cannabinoid receptors present in the body.
William Devane continued research with Dr. Lumir Hanus and the aforementioned Prof. Raphael Mechoulam to find a naturally occurring cannabinoid in the human body, and realized that this endocannabinoid binds to the same brain-cell receptors as THC. They coined the endocannabinoid “anandamide,” which is based on the Sanskrit word ananda — which means joy or bliss. This is the discovery that led to the coining of the “endocannabinoid system” as we know it today. And while it was only found relatively recently in the whole span of organ system discoveries, it actually came into existence over 500 million years ago — before the plant itself ever existed and the most complex form of life was sponges.
That’s the question that was growing in my brain when I first learned about this rich history. Let’s revert back to the mice. Neuroscientist Ester Fride found that genetically-engineered mice that were modified to lack CB receptors were showing similarities to human babies suffering from “failure to thrive” syndrome. The mice’s health deteriorated and they eventually died, all because of their dysfunctional endocannabinoid system.
From this experiment, we can take away a few things. First, everyone experiences the effects of cannabis differently. Some may feel the effects of tiredness and zone out, others may become chatty or giggly. It should always be taken on a case-by-case basis, and it’s because some individuals may have fewer cannabinoid receptors than others, or lower sensitivity to them. These deficits can be caused by genetics, poor diet, lack of exercise, substance abuse, and your environment. And the impacts of decreased CB1 and CB2 receptors have an astounding impact on our quality of life. You can read through thousands of pages of conclusions from international research centers, but you’ll find the same tone throughout: lack of cannabinoid receptors means mammalian bodies have greater trouble regulating themselves and adapting to their environments.
Mice that lacked these receptors experienced early cognitive impairment, reduced locomotive skill, had a higher mortality rate, and accelerated intestinal tumor growth related to colorectal cancer, and exacerbated inflammation. There are hundreds of studies performed on lab mice and rats, that show drastic results based on their lack of an Endocannabinoid system.
History, science, and the living proof of our own existence give us a greater understanding and appreciation of the cannabis plant. Humans and animals alike have an endocannabinoid system that is ready to help us feel good, be healthy, and live a happy life. When the powerful properties of CBD and THC engage with our receptors and enzymes, it’s reducing our anxiety, obesity, and increases mortality. Instead of denouncing these molecules, stigmatizing them, and denying the benefits to those who need them the most, we should look within ourselves to understand the inherent benefits of such a multifaceted plant.
While we’ve been experiencing and using cannabis for thousands of years, we’re only just starting to get into the life changing advantages of it. Earlier we mentioned the short term benefits of cannabis consumption. Today, scientists around the world are figuring out how we can use cannabis for long term treatments in therapy, chronic illnesses, and diseases that debilitate the ones closest to us. Scientists mark the study of this system as a key to coping and even curing a wide range of diseases.They will continue to find more reasons why we should consume the plant that our bodies are built to fuse with.