If your body, with all its delicate, specialized instruments, is to be thought of as an orchestra, then your endocannabinoid system is certainly the conductor. While this system is incredibly complex, with roles ranging from managing appetite to maintain homeostasis, our endocannabinoid system infographic can be thought of as an “endocannabinoid system for dummies” and paints an illustrative picture of how this crucial system works from the genetic level all the way up to symptom management.
Your endocannabinoid system is named as such for being the intricate network of cells within your body (endo means internal) that uses endocannabinoids (cannabinoids found internally) to communicate with itself and other systems of cells throughout your body (brain included!).
Put briefly, your endocannabinoid system is a collective set of neurons(brain cells) that are activated by cannabinoids because of the distinct receptor types (cannabinoid receptors) found on those neurons. Essentially, the cells that make up your body work together by exchanging information so that each part can stay in sync and adapt and adjust to each new set of information.
There are dozens of “systems” throughout the brain and body that work together to accomplish tasks and stay in sync across long distances. For example, a “pain system” would work by using neurons on your arm, for example, to detect the presence of heat, let’s say, and send a message to your brain that can then control your muscle movement to move your arm away from the heat, avoiding danger.
This communication is facilitated by neurotransmitters– chemicals that are emitted from one cell into a small gap (i.e. the synapse) that exists between the cell and its neighboring cell. These neurotransmitters will bind with receptors (similar to a lock and key mechanism) on the neighboring neuron if and only if the keys fit the locks (i.e. that the neurotransmitters fit into the receptors). If the neurotransmitter does indeed bind, then it will cause a chain reaction within the neighboring cell, repeating the process for downstream neurons and propagating the information throughout the entire system. After serving their purpose of binding to a receptor, the neurotransmitters are recycled and their parts are re-inserted into the neuron for another round of neurotransmission.
In any “system” of neurons, the main players are the receptor types, the chemical messengers, and the enzymes responsible for recycling the chemical messengers. For the endocannabinoid system these are:
The endocannabinoid system is particularly important given its role in helping to maintain homeostasis.
Given that during embryonic development, the entire nervous system must be constructed from raw ingredient, the creation of these proteins and enzymes starts with a construction code. That construction code is written in your DNA, which creates long chains of molecules (amino acids) that then go on to combine into proteins.
The specific code in your DNA impacts the quality, abundance, and even potential absence of certain proteins in your brain and body. Proteins are used to create your endocannabinoid system, creating a lock that can only be activated by cannabinoids. Given that your genes can determine the end-product of your endocannabinoid system, we felt that covering the genes that encode the cannabinoid receptors and neurotransmitters of the ECS would be a perfect start to our endocannabinoid system infographic.
Endocannabinoid System Infographic Part I: Genes in our DNA encode the cannabinoid receptors and neurotransmitters of the ECS
Genes in our DNA encode the cannabinoid receptors and the neurotransmitters that pair with them. The endocannabinoid neurotransmitter chemicals fit with the cannabinoid receptors like keys in locks. Imagine your endocannabinoid genes are running a locksmithing firm; Your CNR-1 gene is responsible for knowing how to build the CB-1 receptor lock. CNR-1 uses RNA molecules as tools to build the locks from the fatty acids, proteins and other raw materials in your diet.
Similarly, the DAGLA gene encodes for 2-AG, the most abundant and important endocannabinoid neurotransmitter. Here DAGLA is using her RNA toolkit to sand the burrs off a brand new 2-AG molecular key. CNR-1, DAGLA and the other genes in the lock factory encoding for the human endocannabinoid system build billions and billions of keys (AEA, 2-AG molecules) that unlock billions of locks. These locks sit on neuronal membranes throughout the brain-gut axis (CB-1) and throughout the extremities, genitals and immune tissues (CB-2). Genetic traits and mutations (production errors on the ECS Locksmithing assembly floor) can influence the abundance and distribution of cannabinoid receptors and ligands from person to person.
Endocannabinoid System Infographic Part II: Endocannabinoids get recycled after fulfilling their signaling roles
When the endocannabinoid keys wear out, or the market for keys is saturated and doesn’t need anymore, ECS Locksmithing hauls its old AEA and 2-AG keys to the recycling center. Vesicle Recycling centers are located in membranous sacks inside the cell. Fatty acid binding protiens (FAPBs) carry the AEA and 2-AG to the vesicles via a complex of membranes throughout the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum — like garbage trucks hauling waste down the highway for processing. FAAHand MAGLdo the heavy lifting at Vesicle Recycling. FAAH breaks down AEA into arachidonic acid and other components, while MAGL does the same for 2-AG. If one of these guys calls in sick, the AEA or MAGL is gonna pile up. That’s why FAAH and MAGL are targets of endocannabinoid research in addition to the central components of the endocannabinoid system.
In a typical nerve impulse, the transmitters fire from the axon (the terminal, signal-producing side) of one cell across the synapse (intercellular space) to couple with receptors on the dendrite (the terminal, signal-receiving side) of the next nerve cell. This propagates the impulse electrically through the cell body to its axon, which then repeats the process.
Endocannabinoid System Infographic Part III: Retrograde signaling for homeostasis
In the endocannabinoid system, AEA and 2-AG fire backwards compared with most other neural signalling systems. This “retrograde signalling” is important for the ECS to maintain homeostasis. By firing backwards, the ECS can ensure the nerve stays at rest, primed for the next impulse. This is the function of the ECS at its most basic level — to police the function of your nerves and maintain balance in your mental, emotional and physical functioning.
Endocannabinoid System Infographic Part IV: Regulation
One prominent neuroscientist called the endocannabinoid system the “traffic cop” of the nervous system. He meant that the ECS seems to regulate the flow of neurotransmitters and general functioning of seemingly every other process in your nervous system. The ECS governs mood, appetite, sleep, stress response and a host of other functions through endocannabinoids AEA and 2-AG interacting with CB-1 and CB-2 receptors. As cops, the components of the endocannabinoid system can be real “law-and-order” types. Plant-based cannabinoids like THC and CBD can help them loosen up a little.
Endocannabinoid System Infographic Part V: Phytocannabinoids
But just because they like to party doesn’t mean phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids found in plants) don’t work hard. Just like police departments hire innovative data companies to help them fight crime, the right combination of phytocannabinoids paired with the right dosage and delivery system can treat a host of symptoms from a variety of conditions, from epilepsy to arthritis. Given that receptors of the endocannabinoid system can be activated by cannabinoids found either internally (endocannabinoids) or in plants (phytocannabinoids), the cannabis plant can serve an almost cosmic matrimony role for an individual– allowing a user to supplement the efforts of their internal system of homeostasis.