The endogenous cannabinoid system, named after the plant that led to its discovery, is perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. In each tissue, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.
Cannabinoids promote homeostasis at every level of biological life, from the sub-cellular, to the organism, and perhaps to the community and beyond. Hereâ€™s one example: autophagy, a process in which a cell sequesters part of its contents to be self-digested and recycled, is mediated by the cannabinoid system. While this process keeps normal cells alive, allowing them to maintain a balance between the synthesis, degradation, and subsequent recycling of cellular products.
Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids are also found at the intersection of the bodyâ€™s various systems, allowing communication and coordination between different cell types.
The discovery of receptors in the brain that respond pharmacologically to cannabisâ€”and the subsequent identification of endogenous cannabinoid compounds in our own bodies that bind to these receptorsâ€”has significantly advanced our understanding of human health.
Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that trigger cannabinoid (and other) receptors. More than 100 cannabinoids have been identified in the marijuana plant. Of these marijuana molecules, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) have been studied most extensively. In addition to cannabinoids produced by the plant, there are endogenous cannabinoids (such as anandamide and 2AG) that occur naturally in the mammalian brain and body, as well as synthetic cannabinoids created by pharmaceutical researchers.