Cannabis’ reputed ability to heal our bodies, calm our minds and expand our consciousness is in part due to the complexity of the plant itself; there are over 120 active cannabinoids that facilitate any given cannabis experience. But the make-up of our bodies also contributes to the myriad health and wellness claims attributed to the plant’s consumption.
This is because the human body is equipped with something called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Discovered in the 1990s by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the ECS is a regulatory system that keeps our bodies in a balanced state (also known as homeostasis). The ECS plays an essential role in regulating our experience of pain, pleasure, mood, appetite, memory, metabolism, digestion, synaptic plasticity (keeping our brains flexible), bone density, cardiovascular function, and, of course, stress regulation. No small feat, to say the least.
The endocannabinoid system is mainly comprised of two key sets of cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain, whereas CB2 receptors can be found everywhere else in the body, with some of the highest concentrations of these receptors showing up in our immune tissue and our reproductive system. This accounts for why cannabis has been said to play a part in the enhancement of sexual activity, as well as being credited with alleviating the pain caused by menstruation.
Our body actually makes its own cannabinoids, too. For example, when we experience trauma, our body releases naturally occurring cannabinoids — technically referred to as endocannabinoids — to help mitigate our pain response and aid in recovery. One such endocannabinoid, anandamide or the “bliss” molecule, actually looks and behaves very similarly to cannabis’ most famed cannabinoid, THC (the psychoactive cannabinoid that causes the “high” associated with cannabis). THC mimics our naturally-produced cannabinoids to help us relieve pain, for example. Because researchers believe that some 60% of the world’s population may suffer from an endocannabinoid deficiency, supplementing one’s internal cannabinoid count with cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant can do wonders for your health.
So, how does it all work? Simply put, our own endocannabinoids, or cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant that are released during various methods of consumption, bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors, allowing our bodies to make the most of our of supply of internal cannabinoids. The receptors are unlocked when cannabinoids bind to them, which is said to allow our bodies to experience various healing effects.
When THC binds to the CB1 receptors in the brain, for example, we experience a variety of elevated states of consciousness. This binding allows our perception of pain to be dulled, as well as inspiring mental states that are more mindful and uplifted. CB2 receptors also play a vital role in our pain response and also serve to decrease levels of inflammation that may exist throughout the body.
Because cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, such as THC and CBD – the non-intoxicating cannabinoid – have an affinity to bind to both types of receptors, pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects can be experienced through topical application, as well as through more traditionally-known modes of consumption such as inhalation and ingestion.
Although all animals come prepared with an endocannabinoid system, each individual system is as unique as the individual themselves. This is in part why one cannabis strain may affect two people very differently. And, it is also part of the reason why your experience with the same strain may be varied depending on the day. Our bodies are different every single day — our stress levels, degrees of inflammation, etc. — are all regulated by the ECS, which means that an experience with the healing herb may be different day-to-day.
Story by Ljubica Kostovic
Graphic by Marlo Hwang
Van der Pop does not condone or endorse the illegal consumption of cannabis.