We have cannabinoid receptors and an endocannabinoid system within our body that processes cannabinoids like THC and CBD.
After discovering THC and its’ psychoactive effects on the body, scientists tried to backtrack and explore whether the body made its’ own version of THC and where the whole blissful process took place in our bodies.
So, what are cannabinoid receptors? Do they mean we’re programmed to accept and process cannabis in our bodies? How does the whole thing work?
The Endocannabinoid System
In school, you are taught that there are 11 major organ systems in the human body. They include the circulatory, respiratory, urinary, reproductive, integumentary, skeletal, muscular, nervous, endocrine, lymphatic, and digestive systems. All these systems make up the human body.
But did you know you also have an endocannabinoid system (ECS)?
Unless you are a research scientist or work with medical cannabis, it is very normal that you did not even heard of it.
We did not discover it till 25 years ago. And yet, the ECS has been called “the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is one of the body’s largest neurotransmitter networks but was only discovered in 1990 by Dr Matsuda.
The ECS is always working to achieve balance, or homeostasis, which means maintaining a stable internal environment despite changes in the external environment.
Or, balance for our systems, despite the constant chaos of the outside world.
As you can imagine, this is a crucial physiological system to keep healthy.
The ECS helps fine-tune most of our vital physiological functions. It promotes homeostasis affecting everything from sleep, appetite, pain, inflammation, memory, mood, and even reproduction. The ECS’s communications are composed of messengers and receptors. The brain naturally produces endocannabinoid molecules. The body’s best-known endocannabinoid is called Anandamide.
Anandamide is the chemical that helps us forget unimportant details, improve our happiness, increase neurogenesis (creates new nerve cells), reward us for a job well done (runner’s high), and battle anxiety and depression. Researchers believe that if you naturally have more have more anandamide, you have less use for cannabis. But can you imagine if your body wasn’t creating enough?
There are also plant cannabinoids that are found in cannabis (THC and CBD are the biggest)
Cannabinoids look for, and activate cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) and when they get together they tell your body to feel a certain way and do certain things. They also affect and regulate the way other bodily systems function, like your immune, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems.
The best way to describe the ECS is as a balancing system (or homeostatic regulator): it sends neurotransmitters (messenger + communication molecules) to all your bodily parts to check that everything is working smoothly and confirm if anything needs to be rebalanced. When it finds a problem, it regulates it by sending further instructions to receptors that adjust how you feel and think.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) has been found to play a role in many diseases.
The ECS helps bring balance to the body. As a result, it is no surprise that scientists have observed changes in ECS activity in a number of diseases. Everything from neurodegenerative disorders to rheumatoid arthritis and cancer have shown changes in endocannabinoid levels and greater receptor expression. This suggests that the ECS may be an effective target for restoring balance in the body and promoting good health.
Types of cannabinoid receptors
Don’t get us wrong, cannabis can and does interact with cannabinoid receptors – but the receptors weren’t created for cannabis. They were created as part of the ECS to receive endocannabinoids (and the messages they send) from your brain. Interestingly enough, these receptors also far outnumber any other receptor found in the brain.
Technically, the ECS is just being supplemented when a person consumes cannabis and their receptors are stimulated. Thankfully, this means that many deficiencies and overexpressions of certain characteristics of disease can be “course-corrected” by plant-based cannabinoids like THC and CBD.
As we mentioned, there are 2 main types of receptors: CB1 and CB2.
Cannabinoid Receptor 1 (CB1) receptors are mainly located in the brain and nervous system, as well as in the lungs, liver, and kidneys. Our natural endocannabinoids and the cannabinoid THC from cannabis mainly bind with CB1 (due to their similar molecular structure), which gives patients relief from pain, nausea and depression, among others.
Cannabinoid Receptor 2 (CB2) receptors are found mainly in the immune system, with a heavy concentration in the spleen and in the gastrointestinal system. CB2 receptors bind best with the endocannabinoid 2-AG and cannabis’ CBD and are involved in the regulation of appetite, immune system functions like inflammation, and pain management.
Scientists are on the cusp of determining a third type of cannabinoid receptor (for CBN), but research in this area is ongoing and inconclusive as of now.
How cannabinoid receptors work
The best way to imagine cannabinoids and their receptors is like a lock and key. When a person consumes cannabis, the cannabinoids THC and CBD (keys) flood your body in search of receptors (locks).
When they find one that fits, the effects of the cannabinoid and the function and location of the receptor “click” together and messages are sent through the rest of your body.
As an example: Taking a dose of CBD oil (which will typically bind with the CB2 receptor) can inhibit your appetite, whereas a THC-rich strain can increase appetite because it binds more readily with the CB1 receptor. Hence why you get “munchies” from certain strains of cannabis, but not from others.
However, the ECS is unique in that it communicates “backwards”: this particular sort of cell-to-cell communication inhibits immune response, reduces inflammation, relaxes muscles, lowers blood pressure, and normalizes stimulated nerves. Basically, our natural endocannabinoids “check” to make sure not too much is happening in your body before accepting more stimulation or the system creating more messages.
What this means is that endocannabinoids are created “on demand” and can act as a “dimmer switch” that affect how quickly, often, and where messages get transmitted.
That’s why the ECS is so crucial to proper functioning and health. Dysregulation of the ECS contributes to a wide variety of conditions that prevent the body from achieving balance, like fibromyalgia or IBS. Whether an overproduction of an enzyme, protein, or an overexpression of receptors, if the ECS isn’t functioning correctly, your body has a difficult time regulating it’s emotions, appetite, memory, and everything else the ECS is responsible for.
Though the lock and key analogy does a good job of explaining the basics, the ECS is more nuanced and complex than scientists can confirm even today. While THC works in line with the lock-and-key analogy (binding directly to receptors by mimicking endocannabinoids), CBD works to increase the amount of endocannabinoids in your system by altering the way enzymes work.
How does it do this?
The FAAH enzyme’s job is to remove extra anandamide from your system by breaking it down (thus decreasing happiness and “bliss”). CBD stops FAAH from doing that, thus leaving more endocannabinoids out for consumption by the rest of your body. This way, not only is there more bliss hanging around, there’s also the effects of the pain-relieving and non-psychoactive CBD.
Balance of CB1 and CB2 receptors
Beyond affinity for binding with certain molecules, receptors are also located in different body parts and have different density and numbers, which is considered to be the “expression” of the receptors.
The expression of receptors is as unique person-to-person as their fingerprints: everybody has a different balance, number, and concentration of them, which is why experimenting with cannabis medication is such a delicate and slow process. Different expressions of cannabinoid receptors mean different experiences consuming the same type of cannabis.
The increased density of CB2 receptors in the gastrointestinal system is a great example of why patients with Crohn’s or IBS benefit so much from cannabis medication: CBD-rich medication binds with all the receptors in your gastrointestinal tract and provides pain relief and relief from the inflammation typical in those diseases.
Another example is an over-expression (too many) of CB1 receptors causing a patient to be overly sensitive to THC, leading to munchies or other side effects much quickly than others. If patients under-express the CB2 receptor, they would need to consume greater quantities, other cannabinoids, or specific terpenes along with CBD to feel its’ healing effects.
While cannabinoids have flexibility about the receptors they bind with, having a general understanding of the likelihood (or affinity) for bonding with receptors and their locations, functions, and expressions can help patients have deeper, more meaningful discussions with their physician and come up with stronger treatment plans.
It’s important to keep up-to-date with studies about cannabis that are constantly being updated with findings about receptors, cannabinoids and how they work.
Cannabinoid receptors in action
Knowing about cannabinoids, terpenes, and the endocannabinoid system can only help you get a better grasp of how cannabis affects your body. Scientists that are exploring the endocannabinoid system have found information regarding the following conditions:
Patients with epilepsy have recently been recommended a CBD-rich, low-THC strain because of its anti-inflammatory properties and its’ bonding with CB2 receptors. The side effects for typical anticonvulsant medications are miles long as opposed to the calming, non-psychactive, and healing effects of CBD.
IBS or Crohn’s
Because CB2 receptors are located densely in the gastrointestinal system (as mentioned above), they are responsible for regulating inflammatory responses for the system – which is good news for patients who use CBD for gastrointestinal issues like IBS or Crohn’s.
Patients that suffer with PTSD have had increasing success with THC, due to its’ mimicry of our natural endocannabinoid anandamide. While at first its’ ability to help us forget unimportant details (or mental clutter) is strange, using that functionality to help patients overcome negative memories surrounding a traumatic event and increasing their mood has proven to be very successful and helpful.
General Mental Health
Researchers have found that mice without CB1 receptors show “psychological abnormalities” like increased anxiety and enlarged amygdalas (responsible for emotions and motivation). Genetic studies show that CB1 receptors are important for reducing and controlling anxiety during high-stress periods, so having less or none of these receptors can cause complications.