What Are Endocannabinoids, The Substance Similar To THC In Marijuana That We Humans Produce (and What Effect Do They Have On Our Bodies)

What are endocannabinoids, the substance similar to THC in marijuana that we humans produce (and what effect they have on our bodies). (Photo: BBC)

In the past two decades, society has paid a lot of attention to marijuana.

In early 2023, it was legalized for recreational use in 21 US states and Washington, DC, and its medical use has increased significantly over the past 20 years.

Few people know that the human body naturally produces chemicals similar to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, which comes from the Cannabis sativa plant.

These substances are called endocannabinoids and are found in all vertebrate species.

Evolutionarily, the appearance of endocannabinoids in vertebrates predates Cannabis sativa by 575 million years.

It’s like the human body has its own version of a marijuana seedling inside, continuously producing small amounts of endocannabinoids.

Slippery Marijuana To Consume

(Photo: BBC)

The similarity of endocannabinoids to THC and their importance in maintaining human health have generated great interest among scientists, who are already thoroughly studying their role in health and disease with a view to using them for therapeutic purposes in the treatment of human disease.

THC was first identified in 1964 and is one of more than 100 compounds found in marijuana that make up what are known as cannabinoids.

They are fundamental

Endocannabinoids were only discovered in 1992.

Since then, research has shown that they are essential for many important physiological functions that regulate human health.

An imbalance in the production of endocannabinoids, or in the body’s response to them, can lead to serious clinical conditions, such as obesity, neurodegenerative, cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases.

Immunologists have spent more than two decades studying the effects of marijuana cannabinoids and vertebrate endocannabinoids on inflammation and cancer.

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Research in our lab has shown that endocannabinoids regulate inflammation and other immune functions.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

There are several tissues in the body, including the brain, muscles, adipose tissue, and immune cells, that produce small amounts of endocannabinoids.

There are two main types of endocannabinoids: anandamide, or AEA, and 2-arachidonoylglycerol, known as 2-AG.

Both can activate the body’s cannabinoid receptors, which receive and process chemical signals in cells.

One of these receptors, called CB1, is located mainly in the brain.

The other, called CB2, is mainly found on immune cells.

It is primarily through the activation of these two receptors that endocannabinoids control many bodily functions.

Chemical Structure Of Anandamide And 2-Arachidonoylglycerol.

This is the chemical structure of anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol.

Receptors can be compared to a “lock” and endocannabinoids to a “key” that can open the lock and access cells.

All of these receptors and endocannabinoid molecules together are known as the endocannabinoid system.

The cannabis plant contains another compound called cannabidiol or CBD, which has become popular for its medicinal properties.

Unlike THC, CBD has no psychoactive properties because it does not activate CB1 receptors in the brain.

It also does not activate CB2 receptors, so its action on immune cells is independent of CB2 receptors.

A Key That Goes Into A Lock

A key that goes into a lock

Role of endocannabinoids in the body

The euphoric “high” feeling people experience when using marijuana comes from THC activating CB1 receptors in the brain.

But when the endocannabinoids produced by the body activate the CB1 receptors, they do not cause that feeling.

One reason is that the body produces them in smaller amounts than the usual amount of THC in marijuana.

The other is that they are quickly broken down by certain enzymes after they have fulfilled their cellular functions.

However, there is growing evidence that certain activities can release mood-boosting endocannabinoids.

Some research suggests that the euphoric and relaxed feeling you get after exercise, called a “runner’s high,” is the result of the release of endocannabinoids rather than endorphins, as previously thought.

A Sleeping Woman

(Photo: BBC)

Endocannabinoids regulate various bodily functions such as sleep, mood, appetite, learning, memory, body temperature, pain, immune functions and fertility.

They control some of these functions by regulating nerve cell signaling in the brain.

Normally, nerve cells communicate with each other at junctions called synapses.

The brain’s endocannabinoid system regulates this communication at synapses, explaining its ability to influence a wide variety of bodily functions.

The elixir of endocannabinoids

Research in our lab has shown that certain cells of the immune system produce endocannabinoids that can regulate inflammation and other immune functions through the activation of CB2 receptors.

In addition, we have shown that endocannabinoids are highly effective in reducing the debilitating effects of autoimmune diseases.

These are diseases in which the immune system goes haywire and begins to destroy the body’s organs and tissues.

A Man Runs Through The Woods In A Striking Yellow T-Shirt

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Examples include multiple sclerosis, lupus, hepatitis, and arthritis.

Recent research suggests that migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder are associated with low levels of endocannabinoids.

Also Parkinson’s

In a 2022 study, researchers found that a defect in a gene that helps make endocannabinoids causes the early onset of Parkinson’s disease.

Another 2022 study linked the same genetic defect to other neurological conditions, including developmental delay, poor muscle control and vision problems.

Other research has shown that people with a defective form of CB1 receptors experience increased sensitivity to pain, such as migraines, sleep and memory disorders, and anxiety.

Marijuana Tests In A Drugstore In The United States

Marijuana testing in a parapharmacy in the United States. (Photo: BBC)

The similarity between marijuana and endocannabinoids

We believe that the medicinal properties of THC may be related to the molecule’s ability to compensate for a deficiency or defect in endocannabinoid production or functions.

For example, scientists have found that people who experience certain forms of chronic pain may have reduced production of endocannabinoids.

People who use marijuana for medicinal purposes report significant pain relief.

Since THC is the analgesic cannabinoid in marijuana, it may help to compensate for the reduced production or function of endocannabinoids in such patients.

Deciphering the role of endocannabinoids remains an emerging area of ​​health research.

Much more research is certainly needed to decipher its role in regulating various functions in the body.

In our opinion, it will also be important to further unravel the relationship between defects in the endocannabinoid system and the onset of various diseases and clinical disorders.

We believe that the answers may hold promise for the development of new therapies that utilize the body’s own cannabinoids.

*Prakash Nagarkatti and Mitzi Nagarkatti are Professors of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology at the University of South Carolina.

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