Cannabis Corner THC and CBD: keys to our endocannabinoid system. But how well do the keys fit?

By Marcella McClure

Two weeks ago I described how THC and CBD are the most active and abundant phytocannabinoids in the cannabis plant. How are these molecules able to act within us? Where are they, and what are they doing in the human body?

To explain, allow me to introduce the endocannabinoid system (ECS) so you have a feeling of how THC and CBD interact with our bodies. If you’re looking for an analogy, think of a partner on the dance floor.

According to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 2012, the ECS is more than 500 million years old. It is found in all animals and is nearly identical in biochemical composition in all mammals. Imagine! This system is the same in humans, cats, and dolphins. A system that is this evolutionarily conserved among all mammals plays an important role.

So tell me, Dr. McClure, what is the endocannabinoid system exactly?

The ECS is a modulatory system that plays important roles mediating the body’s response to both internal and external stimuli. If the receptors of the ECS were tiny lights, the body would sparkle. The brain and all our other organs — connective tissue, glands and immune cells — would be the brightest. So the ECS is a network of nerve cells throughout the body that modulates biological functions.

The endocannabinoid system has three components:

  • Specific receptors on cells in various tissues throughout the body like the brain, the nervous system and stomach.
  • Cannabinoid molecules that bind to these receptors.
  • Enzymes that either make or break down cannabinoids.

A molecule that binds to a receptor is like a key in a lock.

We make molecules in our body called endocannabinoids (endo means inside) that bind to the ECS receptors throughout the nervous system. The most important endocannabiniod is anandamide, a neurotransmitter. Ananda means bliss in Sanskrit.  Anandamide is known as the bliss drug. This system did not evolve so we can get high. But we all know about runner’s high, or that euphoric feeling we get after a great workout. When we exercise, we make an abundance of anandamide that binds to the receptors of the ECS in brain cells and we feel great.

The ECS influences many biological functions, including everything from memory to pain, from appetite to mood, and everything in between.

Research demonstrates that the endocannabinoid system is responsible for the balance of these biological functions in our bodies. If it sounds complex, it’s because it is. Much more research is needed to know how to influence the ECS when it is out of balance. When we feel pain, anxiety or have an infection, the endocannabinoid system is out of balance. Think of the ECS as being like a superpower our bodies have, like an added sensory system that was only discovered in the last decade or so.

Okay, Dr. McClure, so what does this have to do with cannabis, THC and CBD?

Although the medicinal use of cannabis dates back to 400 A.D., no one had any idea how it works in the body until the last decade or so. Humans have been using cannabis for nearly 5,000 years and there are many anecdotes recounting the amazing array of ailments that cannabis appears to help.

Now we know that cannabis acts in the endocannabinoid system, which maintains a healthy balance in the body. THC can do this because it is similar in shape to anandamide. Think of the endocannabinoid system as your body’s thermostat, one that regulates not just your temperature but your mood, whether or not you breath fast or whether or not you have pain.

Besides your own endocannabinoids, THC is another key that fits your thermostat controls, and can have an effect on your body’s functions, such as pain. CBD is somewhat similar in shape to THC but not enough to fit as a key to the receptors. CBD dances up to the thermostat knob and blocks THC’s ability to bind there. In effect, what CBD does is make THC less active in the body. Recall that THC is the most abundant phytocannabiniod in cannabis, while CBD is the second most abundant. There is always more THC than CBD in natural cannabis.

All these acronyms are confusing, Dr. McClure!

Remember the dancer analogy? Well, think of your endocannabinoid system as a veteran dancer who goes to a party where she can choose many other different dancers. There’s THC over there, and CBD up on the second floor, and so many other compounds that are in the cannabis plant. And it’s important to know how these “partners” interact with your own endocannabinoid system to make sure what you consume is safe. Think of information as a condom for your endocannabinoid system.

In the next column, I will describe more details on the intricate dance between the multi-compound drug we call cannabis and the ECS in our bodies that leads to relief from so many ailments. Is it fact or fantasy? Stay tuned.

And remember, save the holy weed from the damn greed.

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Marcella McClure

About Marcella McClure

After a successful career as scientist, Dr. Marcella McClure moved to Salinas to enjoy the weather and the people. She enjoys gardening, hiking on beach dunes and rock crawling.