Updated: Feb 21
We all remember at least something about the complex transmitter systems within the human body that we learned about in school. We’ve heard about the sympathetic nervous system, which gives us our fight-or-flight response; and the nervous system’s complex networks of neurons specialized in carrying messages throughout our bodies, which are necessary for our daily function and life. Below we will briefly discuss the parts of the nervous system and some of its responsibilities, before introducing the less known endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for monitoring and controlling them.
Central nervous system (CNS): the brain and spinal cord make up your CNS; and our brains sends and receive messages up and down our spinal cord via a vast network of nerves.
Peripheral nervous system (PNS): the peripheral nervous system consists of the many nerves branching out from the CNS, encompass virtually the entire body and relay information from the brain and spinal cord to our organs, arms, legs, fingers and toes. The PNS also includes two other very important systems:
Somatic nervous system: which guides voluntary movements (i.e. intentionally raising your finger)
Autonomic nervous system: which guides our automatic processes (i.e. reflexes, heartbeat, breathing etc.)
Together, these systems allow us:
To collect sensory input from the body and external environment (what you see, hear, taste, touch and feel)
To process and interpret sensory input
To respond appropriately to sensory input
To have thoughts, memory, learning, and feelings
Movements, such as balance and coordination
Sleep, healing and aging
Heartbeat and breathing patterns
Response to stressful situations
Digestion, as well as how hungry and thirsty you feel
Body processes, such as puberty
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
The ECS regulates and controls many of our most critical bodily functions such as learning and memory, emotional processing, sleep, temperature control, pain control, inflammatory and immune responses, and eating (Grinspoon, 2021).
The ECS is a vast network that communicate in chain reactions by transmitting and receiving chemical signals via receptors located on the cells throughout our bodies. The ECS receptors are a found in an abundance throughout our brains and bodies and outnumber many of the other receptor types of our brains. These cannabinoid systems act as a conductor, orchestrating the activity of most of the neurotransmitters that transfer information along the previously discussed systems. When transmitters are released within the ECS, reactions are immediate resulting in the regulation of whichever system is perceived to need adjustment, by turning up or turning down the activity within that system.
For the ECS to communicate, our bodies produce molecules similar to those found in the cannabis plant (e.g. CBD, CBG, CBN etc.) called endocannabinoids. Because of the similarities shared between our bodies endocannabinoids and the cannabinoids found within the cannabis plant, when cannabis or hemp is consumed, cannabinoids are able to essentially hijack our natural system and give it a boost.
There are two known types of cannabinoid receptors with the ECS, CB1 receptors, which work along the pathways we have discussed above, and a second type of cannabinoid receptor, called the CB2, which exists mainly within our immune tissues. The CB2 receptors play a critical role in monitoring and modulating our immune functions, inflammation, contraction and pain.
Although there is limited research, the endocannabinoid system is fighting its way into the spotlight of the international research stage. Early research has suggested that when taken in therapeutic doses, cannabinoids (CBD) have efficacy in alleviating: anxiety, insomnia, stress, depression, high blood pressure, seizures and much more. It is an exciting new realm of science and at this point in time, CBD is known to have no negative side effects, does not result in addiction and actually has something known as a reverse tolerance, wherein less and less of the molecule is needed to achieve desired results over time and as it builds up in the system.
In the future, much more will be known about the endocannabinoid system and it’s efficacy for pain; as well as the endocannabinoid system and it’s effects on sleep; and how the endocannabinoid system interacts with anxiety. Currently, in clinical studies, researchers have used doses in the range of 150-300mg when using CBD to treat anxiety, sleep and pain. It is a field of science that is still in its infancy, but that will certainly become more transparent in the coming years.