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The endocannabinoid system

By Shaun Holt

Cannabis contains over 400 different compounds and more than 100 of these belong to a group of chemicals called cannabinoids.

These chemicals are responsible for the majority of the effects of cannabis and are fat-soluble molecules that bind onto cannabinoid receptors in the human body which leads to the effects that they produce. The reason we have cannabinoid receptors in our bodies is that our bodies actually make cannabinoid chemicals which are very similar to the ones that are found in the cannabis plant. This is a really important point and one that many people do not realise - the chemicals in cannabis are not foreign to our bodies.

The cannabinoids that are produced naturally in the bodies of animals, including humans, are called endocannabinoids, meaning cannabinoids that are produced from within. Other types of cannabinoids are those that are not made by the body but are made by plants, such as cannabis plants, called phytocannabinoids. It is not just the cannabis plant that makes these. For example echinacea, liverwort and even chocolate contain small amounts of these chemicals. The other type of cannabinoids are synthetic cannabinoids which as the name informs, are made artificially in a laboratory.

Our bodies therefore have a number of cannabinoid chemicals floating around and they are a completely normal part of the way our body regulates itself. This is an important point; yes we can take cannabis products containing cannabinoids into our bodies, but there are already cannabinoid chemicals in the body which are performing important functions. In many ways cannabis is similar to steroid medicines, we can take a steroid tablet or have a steroid injection for medical conditions, but we already have the steroids in our bodies. Another example, this time from the natural world, are chilli peppers; the main component in them which causes the heat, capsaicin, is used by many people as a cream that is rubbed in for musculoskeletal pain, such as that from arthritis. But the human body is naturally wired up for this, as our pain fibres have capsaicin receptors on them.

Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the human body and belong to part of a system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This system has many important functions and roles in the body and amongst other things is involved in the body’s regulation of:

  • appetite
  • pain
  • mood
  • memory
  • immune response
  • sleep

When you look at all these body systems listed, what becomes apparent is that cannabinoid chemicals which are made in our bodies are involved in many important functions that are important for our wellbeing. Also, when thinking about the symptoms that medical cannabis may be able to alleviate (by, for example, increasing appetite, reducing pain, improving mood, helping with sleep) we can see that these are the functions that the cannabinoid chemicals in our body are working on anyway and any extra effects from the medical cannabis are supplementing this.