With all the buzz about weed these days, thanks to legalization, the door is now wide open for all sorts of important conversations and activities, including in-depth exploration of how cannabis actually affects the human body. It’s not just pure magic folks; this is where our ol’ buddy science, and specifically PHYSIOLOGY, enters the conversational sphere, because when you smoke a joint or gobble up an edible, that action carries out a series of domino effects in your body, and thus impacts the response that your body has to ingesting this special flower.
As you can imagine, there is a myriad of factors that affect this intricate equation (i.e. lifestyle, genetics, environment) which means the response to cannabis is unique for everyone!
So how does the process actually work?
When humans consume cannabis, the primary system that is responsible for the reaction is our endocannabinoid system, also known as the ECS, which is, essentially, an assembly of cell receptors and ‘endocannabinoids’ (more on those in a moment) throughout the body that are responsible for maintaining our body’s internal equilibrium, or, the more technical term: homeostasis. From regulating our sleep, mood, stress levels, immune system, appetite, tolerance for pain, memory function and more, studies have shown that the ECS plays a vital role in ensuring we’re balanced and healthy.
So, in case the terms “cell-receptor” and “endocannabinoids” aren’t exactly super familiar to you (join the club!), let’s break this down further:
First, cells are essentially the tiniest components of an organism, i.e., the human body!
And wtf is an “endocannabinoid”? Well, these are the dynamic, naturally occurring cellular molecules in your system that bind with different receptors that cause your body to feel certain ways and impacts how other important bodily systems function, such as your immune, digestive and nervous systems. In plants, these are called ‘phytocannabinoids’ and cannabis, in particular, contains over 113 different types. The ones that you are likely most familiar with (as they are the ones that have received the most study), are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), and yes, through interaction with your ECS, phytocannabinoids can affect how your body feels too. Whether they are ‘homegrown’ (‘endo’) or ingested via plant matter (phyto), cannabinoids are chemical compounds that can pose great impact on how you think and feel. However, while on the topic, it’s worth noting that not all cannabinoids bind to the receptors found in the ECS and instead, stimulates enzymes or other bodily regions that in turn, moderate your response to endocannabinoids.
The endocannabinoid system is a system of cannabinoid receptors located inside the human body, including the brain and throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems. It consists of neuromodulatory lipids and their receptors, meaning these are the antennas that connect to the signal of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids— allowing us to experience the full effects of the plant medicine.
The endocannabinoid system regulates a variety of natural physiological and cognitive processes including fertility, pregnancy, during pre- and postnatal development, appetite, pain-sensation, mood, memory, and — most importantly to us stoners — it modulates the psychoactive effects of cannabinoids.
The endocannabinoid system is also involved in mediating some of the physiological and cognitive effects of voluntary physical activity in humans and other animals, such as contributing to exercise-induced euphoria as well as modulating locomotor activity and motivation for food rewards.
The endocannabinoid system has been studied using genetic and pharmacological methods, revealing that cannabinoids act as neuromodulators for a variety of processes — including neuronal development, synaptic plasticity, memory, and pain.
The endocannabinoid system is a recently discovered system of molecular signaling that modulates a wide range of physiological processes. The discovery of the endocannabinoid system has led to a better understanding of how cannabinoids work in the brain and has provided new insight into potential therapeutic applications of cannabinoids.
So, it’s official: we were born to smoke weed. Toke on!
Still with us? Ok, let’s explain just a bit further: Your bod’s ECS has two primary cell receptors; Cannabinoid Receptor 1 (CB1) and Cannabinoid Receptor 2 (CB2). According to existing research, CB1 receptors are mainly found in the central nervous system (brain included!), while CB2 receptors are found primarily in the immune system. Therefore, to summarize: as the ECS moderates your internal balance, depending on the type of cannabinoid, these will bind with corresponding cell receptors and may produce a certain shift in your cognitive or physical state. Exhibit A: you smoke some cannabis that has a high THC concentration and the THC cannabinoid binds with cell receptors related to your nervous system, you may become ‘high’ ☺
Overall, due to the rather recent scientific developments that have demonstrated these processes (while compounds like THC were identified in the 1960s, the ECS system as a whole was only discovered in 1992!), coupled with the prohibition era hindering important educational progress, it’s clear we’ve still got a lot to figure out about the special relationship between people and cannabis. In the meantime, when determining how the plant can work best for you, having a deeper understanding of the physiological relationship can surely help.