Humans have cultivated and harvested cannabis for around 12,000 years, and it has had a wide range of applications throughout this time – from making textiles to providing relief from various medical conditions.
Although conventional medicine has traditionally not acknowledged its potential medical applications, while alternative and therapeutic medicine have claimed its significant health benefits for some time, one thing is certain and undisputed: cannabis has psychoactive effects on the human body.
This was the reason behind its strict regulation in the US, as well as the majority of the rest of the world. In the US specifically, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act effectively banned its use, further supported by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act – this legislation drastically slowed the process of discovering exactly how cannabis works inside the human body.
However, in recent years, as traction has gathered around the topic, scientists and researchers have begun to discover that its effects on the human body are far more complex than simply getting the user “high” – this is a direct result of increasing research and studies, and subsequent deeper understanding, of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which was aptly named due to its obvious link to cannabis, which will be explained in this article.
Discovery of the ECS
It’s easier to name the creatures on this planet that don’t have an ECS than those that do: crustaceans, arachnids, insects, corals, worms, flatworms, sponges, mollusks, and jellyfish. Animals are believed to have developed the ECS approximately 525 million years ago during what is referred to as “the Cambrian explosion” – a period of time during which all major animal body plans appeared, permanently changing and shaping the biosphere.
However, it wasn’t until 1988, during a government-funded study at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, that scientists realized the brain has multiple receptor sites that respond to the compounds that are found in cannabis, which led to the ECS receiving its name. This, in turn, led to naturally occurring neurotransmitters in the human body being uncovered – these were named “endocannabinoids”. After this was confirmed by a group of Israeli researchers in 1992, and scientists around the world began to take an increasing interest in the newly discovered bodily system – although stigma surrounding the link to cannabis unfortunately slowed progress significantly.
What Is the ECS?
It is important to understand what the ECS is and how it works in order to understand how cannabis works inside the human body, as the two are so closely linked. The purpose of the ECS is to maintain homeostasis (balance) throughout the body through involvement in the regulation of various cognitive processes, including mood, memory, sleep, pain sensation, and appetite.
It has, therefore, been termed as “the bridge between the body and the mind.” Additionally, the ECS protects organs from damage occurring due to toxicity, infection, or inflammation by utilizing endocannabinoids, which are essentially specialized cannabinoids that are naturally produced by the body.
They act as messengers for the ECS by sending signals around the body as necessary to ensure homeostasis is maintained. Without them, quite simply, our bodies would be unable to function optimally. They bind to endocannabinoid receptors, of which there are two types: the first (CB1) is found in the central nervous system, vital organs, the brain, glands, and tissues; and the second (CB2) is located in the immune and gastrointestinal systems, as well as white blood cells, the tonsils, and the spleen. Both can, however, also be found in other areas of the body, including bones, the liver, the heart, and reproductive organs. In short, every human body is full of them.
How Does Cannabis Interact with the ECS?
The ECS is also receptive to the plant-sourced equivalents to endocannabinoids, which is where cannabis comes into play. In fact, the naturally produced compounds found in cannabis are the perfect shape and size to interact with the ECS – and cannabis is the only known source of cannabinoids other than our own bodies. These are called phytocannabinoids, of which there are at least 113 different kinds, each with their own properties and effects on the body. Some of these phytocannabinoids are capable of directly binding to CB1 and CB2 receptors; others act as antagonists.
When cannabis is consumed, the phytocannabinoids enter the bloodstream and are then able to bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors throughout the body – although it’s also worth noting that some phytocannabinoids (for example, CBD) are also able to bind to additional receptors that are not part of the ECS, such as A2A and VR1 receptors, the former being associated with the regulation of anxiety, blood flow, and blood oxygen levels, and the latter being associated with pain perception, body temperature, and inflammation.
What Effects Does This Have on the Body?
Firstly, it is important to note that the effects of cannabis on the body vary depending on the method of consumption. When inhaled directly into the lungs, the phytocannabinoids enter the bloodstream rapidly and immediately bind to or activate CB1 and CB2 receptors; as a result, the effects are felt almost instantly. However, they are relatively short-lived in comparison with other methods of consumption. Conversely, if ingested, the phytocannabinoids are processed by the stomach and digestive system, then transported immediately to the liver, which breaks them down into metabolites. These metabolites are then able to bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors throughout the body – however, this means the effects take longer to be felt, although they are long-lasting.
Different phytocannabinoids have differing effects on the body depending on which receptors they bind to. The most obvious example of this is THC – the psychoactive phytocannabinoid – which binds to CB1 receptors on the brain, thereby producing the “high” feeling that’s associated with cannabis consumption. Non-psychoactive phytocannabinoids, on the other hand, affect the body in different ways: CBD has a low binding affinity for CB1 and CB2 receptors but acts as an antagonist to both, with possible benefits including relief from various conditions such as depression, anxiety, epilepsy, insomnia, paranoia, high blood pressure, inflammation, and chronic pain, among others (as a result of activating CB1 receptors receptor) and general well-being and immunity (by activating CB2 receptors). Another phytocannabinoid, CBG, which has antibacterial effects, acts as an antagonist to CB1 receptors, thereby possibly killing bacteria or slowing its growth, promoting bone growth, and reducing inflammation.
We could go through the list of each of the 113 phytocannabinoids present in cannabis, but the truth is, there’s still not enough research available in this area. One thing has been clearly shown, however: although it is possible to isolate each phytocannabinoid in a laboratory to be consumed on its own, when a holistic approach is used (i.e., the entire plant containing the whole range of phytocannabinoids and terpenes), the effects are enhanced. All the compounds present in the extract work in synergy to create a phenomenon known as the “entourage effect” – meaning that, when taken together, they produce greater, more positive effects on the body compared with those from each individual compound.