The reason cannabis produces therapeutic and psychoactive effects in people is because our bodies are literally hardwired to react to cannabinoids, the active chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant.

The human endocannabinoid system (ECS), named after the cannabis plant, is a major molecular system that works to help maintain homeostasis—or balance—within the body. The ECS plays an important role in a number of physiological functions, both in the central and peripheral nervous systems and in peripheral organs.

The ECS is actually found in all vertebrate species, and it includes three main components: cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids and metabolic enzymes. It is activated by endocannabinoids produced by the body and cannabinoids introduced from external sources.

Cannabinoid receptors found on the surface of cells throughout the body tell the inside of the cells what’s going on outside, and that information activates certain cellular responses. The two main cannabinoid receptors are CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors are found at high levels in several brain regions and in lower levels throughout the body. These receptors are responsible for mediating the psychoactive effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CB2 receptors are found primarily in immune cells, but are also found at lower levels throughout the body.

Endocannabinoids are small molecules that bind to and activate the body’s cannabinoid receptors. The body synthesizes endocannabinoids the same way it synthesizes cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. The main difference is that endocannabinoids are produced naturally within the body. The two main endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-AG.

Metabolic enzymes in the ECS break down the endocannabinoids after they’ve been used by cells. Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) is the key enzyme that breaks down anandamide, and monoacylglycerol lipase (MGL) is the key enzyme that breaks down 2-AG. These metabolic enzymes serve the purpose of making sure endocannabinoids are used when the body needs them and prevents the body from storing them for later use.

Emerging cannabinoid research indicates that modulating the activity of the ECS may present effective therapeutic treatment options for a wide range of diseases and pathological conditions, including mood disorders, spasticity, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, cancer, glaucoma, osteoporosis and more.

Because the ECS plays such a large and wide-ranging role in promoting homeostasis within the body, cannabinoid-based treatments may hold tremendous promise for patients with diseases and conditions that don’t respond well to traditional treatment options. A growing number of preclinical studies and clinical trials are already uncovering novel therapeutic approaches for such cannabinoid-based treatments.

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