Body is a rather complex biological mechanism that has many systems working without us even noticing. Regulation of blood-flow, reflex system, sugar uptake and release, hormonal regulation – these are only several of those systems that tend to be presented at our school curricula, they are rather well understood specific systems. However, there are some systems working inside our bodies that are either a lot less understood or are far more complex, with endocannabinoid system being one of them. Let’s explore it’s purpose and importance and how it relates to phytocannabinoids?
What is the endocannabinoid system?
Endocannabinoid system (abbreviated ECS) is a vast network of various receptors – unique biological “detectors“ able to sense presence of certain molecules – that are spread out throughout the entire body. Our organisms have developed both – ECS receptors as well as endocannabinoids – signal molecules, responsible for triggering the receptor (for example, telling it to either switch on or off). Interestingly, for several decades only CB1 and CB2 receptors were known, however, nowadays there are some discussions about a new – CB3 receptor that is thought to belong to this family. Highest concentration of CB1 receptors is found in the brain, thus, they are attributed with attenuating neural activity there. Whereas CB2 are found on immune cells, blood stem cells and in the central nervous system (CNS) and are more related to pain and various related sensations.
Who are those cannabinoids that interact with ECS?
As we are now aware of main ECS receptors – we can delve deeper into the signaling molecules and their role. A wide range of scientific literature reveals that there are endogenous and exogenous cannabinoids with endogenous, or endocannabinoids, being those that the body itself produces, these are arachidonate-based lipids, anadamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). The exogenous cannabinoids are everthing that remains – be it phytocannabinoids from plants or synthetic cannabinoids – molecules developed in laboratories which as well tend to bind to ECS receptors. Phytocannabinoids would include those found in cannabis or hemp plant (CBN, CBD, CBC, THC and others) as well as in other flowering plants belonging to Echinacea, Acmella, Helichrysum and Radula species. There is also a series of purely synthetic exogenous cannabinoids developed in research institutes: AM-1221, AM-1235, UR-144, JWH-007, JWH-015, JWH-018 and others. Interestingly, even though all these molecules are called cannabinoids – they drastically differ in their molecular buildup, meaning that they posses functional similarity and are not bound to possess any structural similarities.
So how do cannabinoids interact with ECS?
Cannabinoids, both exo and endogenous, tend to interact with the active centers of ECS receptors. Some cannabinoids are more selective on either CB1 or CB2 receptor (CBN, HU-308, AM630, etc.), meaning that they prefer one over another one, while other cannabinoids bind well to both receptors (HU-210, THC, anandamide, 2-AG, etc.). What is more, after binding to a receptor – cannabinoids can either activate (agonists) or deactivate (antagonists) those receptors, furthermore, a cannabinoid can be an agonist at one receptor and an antagonist at another receptor or, even, either agonist or antagonist on the same receptor in different circumstances, this can be observed in the case of reports on CBD in different scientific articles. This means that the whole story is a rather complex one, when observed on a molecular level. It might be somewhat easier to observe the effects on a macro level. On macro level there are countless accounts that phyto (THC) and synthetic (HU-210) cannabinoids affect memory as well as appetite (THC). CBN is currently undergoing clinical trials for insomnia and endocannabinoid anandamide was shown to regulate sleep cycles in rats. CBD is already an approved medicine for treatment of certain types of epilepsy, while other cannabinoids due to their complex nature are still under investigation. Even though the future is unpredictable, it is for sure interesting and exciting to find out more and more about the effects and possible applications of cannabinoids!
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This article was brought to you by scientist Simonas Balkaitis.