The healing properties of cannabis have been proven again and again in recent studies from reversing untreatable epilepsy in children and shrinking terminal brain tumors in adults and can improve outcomes for so many different conditions, yet few people really understand how this healing happens. So what is this miraculous Endocannabinoid system?
How the Endocannabinoid System Was Discovered
Information about the endocannabinoid system that underlies how cannabis is received in the body was not made public until the 1990s and is still not taught in medical schools – despite the fact that it is probably the most important biological discovery of the 20th century.
According to Martin A. Lee, co-founder and director of Project CBD and author of Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana, the endocannabinoid system was discovered by accident by the National Institute on Drug Abuse , the only agency allowed to do research on marijuana at the time, while they were trying to prove that weed actually causes harm to the human brain.
“Rather than discrediting cannabis, NIDA inadvertently facilitated a series of major discoveries about the workings of the human brain.” Writes Lee in a 2012 paper entitled The Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System.
“These breakthroughs —among the most exciting developments in brain chemistry of our time— spawned a revolution in medical science and a profound understanding of health and healing.” He continues.
Specifically, what the NIDA and later researchers discovered was a system of receptors in the brain, organs, nervous system and immune system that bind to cannabinoids –naturally occurring compounds found in marijuana like Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). In other words, while trying to prove that marijuana damages us, they actually discovered a whole new biological system that interacts with cannabis in profound health promoting ways.
How the Endocannabinoid System Works
We now know that the endocannabinoid system appeared early in evolutionary history and is present in all vertebrates on earth.A central signaling system that is concerned with maintaining homeostasis, or balance, between different parts and systems of the body, the endocannabinoid system regulates everything from pain to body temperature, inflammation to immune response, and much much more.
The fact that the cannabis plant produces compounds that bind to these human neural receptors is a pure natural magic. Like domesticated fruits and animals, it is now proven that marijuana is the product of an intense co-evolution between humans and the plant world. A plant that specifically evolved with us as a life giving food and medicine, marijuana produces over 100 different cannabinoids that bind to our Endocannabinoid System and only a handful have been studied!
What we do know is that there are at least two different kinds of cannabinoid receptors that make up the endocannabinoid system in humans. CB1 receptors are found throughout the body and organs but are concentrated in the brain and the spinal cord, and are responsible for the psychoactive effects of THC when this cannabinoid is consumed. CB2 receptors are found throughout the nervous system and all along the immune system pathways but do not cause a change of conscious state when activated.
Between these two receptors, and scientists believe there may be several more, cannabinoids from the marijuana plant are able to modulate and regulate a whole host of biological functions. While much research is focused now on specific actions of specific cannabinoids, newer studies show that these cannabinoids act together – in what’s known as the “entourage effect” – to really effect powerful changes at the cellular level in the human body.
The Endocannabinoid System and the Future of Cannabis Medicine
The discovery of the endocannabinoid system and later insights into how it works is now allowing cannabis medicine to accelerate to a pace that will undoubtedly make it an integral part, if not the foundation, of the medicine of the future. Because we have discovered that almost every human health condition, including addiction cravings and even appetite and caloric intake, is modulated by signaling from the endocannabinoid system, the therapeutic applications are truly endless.
Since the endocannabinoid system was discovered, studies have opened up some amazing paradigms. A 2012 study shows the endocannabinoid system is also involved with many aspects of the aging process, and that cannabinoids that stimulate the CB1 receptors (like THC) can actually slow and prevent the progression of aging in the human brain.
Even more miraculous, in a 2017 study researchers were able to not just slow but actually reverse cognitive decline due to aging in the brains of mice using THC, an effect due to the Endocannabinoid System’s ability to up-regulate and down-regulate gene expression and therefore turn back the clock at the genetic level.
This discovery that marijuana can effect “epigenetic” changes” (how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work) points to its real potential in human evolutionary medicine. Scientists now believe that the cannabinoids in cannabis modulate and regulate a wide range of epigenetic markers, including many related to diseases, and actually make genetic changes that are hereditary and passed down to offspring.
With worldwide legalization on the horizon, the future of medical marijuana may lie in the endocannabinoid system’s role in supporting us all to self- evolve, using cannabis based treatments to down regulate disease factors and up help support our physical and emotional beings to the point where we are both healthy and peaceful.
Ocean Malandra is a widely published freelance writer that divides his time between Northern California and South America. He is the current author of the Moon Travel Guide series to Colombia, a former environmental columnist for Paste Magazine, and the co-editor of an anthology on plant medicines forthcoming in 2021. Follow him @oceanmalandra