Cannabinoid Receptors 101

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Some people use cannabis for its mind altering effects, while others enjoy it for its many medicinal and relief providing properties. But whatever reason we use weed, it wouldn’t be half as useful or as fun if our bodies did not naturally contain a biological network of molecules and receptors, which is capable of interacting with the active chemical compounds found in cannabis, like THC and CBD.

We are talking of course, about the Endocannabinoid System, or ECS as it is more commonly known. However, while the Endocannabinoid system is responsible for a majority of the receptors which interact with the cannabis plant and make us feel the way we feel, it also serves a vital purpose for our health and well-being.

So what is the Endocannabinoid system? Why is it important and what does it do? And more importantly, what exactly are cannabinoid receptors?

All of these are important and relevant questions, and ones which nearly all cannabis lovers have asked themselves at one time or the other. Today we will be answering all of these and more. So let’s light up and get to it.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

Believe it or not, but just like the cannabis plant, we humans also have a whole set of naturally occurring cannabinoids in us. These are called endocannabinoids, while those that the cannabis plant produces are called phytocannabinoids. Together with a network of receptors and nerves, these endocannabinoids form a biological system which today we call the endocannabinoid system.

While there are hundreds of different endocannabinoids, the most important ones are anandamide and 2-AG (2-arachidonoylglycerol). Not only are these endocannabinoids present in all human beings, regardless of whether we’ve ever smoked weed or not, but are also there in nearly every living being. Dolphins, dogs, pigeons, and even earthworms, they all have endocannabinoids.

What does the Endocannabinoid System do?

In order to understand what the Endocannabinoid system does, we must first understand the biological concept of homeostasis.

The best way to do this is via the classic fairytale of Goldilocks and the three bears. The story hinted at the concept that the best possible outcome lies in the middle of two extremes.

Similarly, the concept of homeostasis states that our bodily functions are heavily regulated, and aim to keep our conditions balanced and in the middle. They don’t want our body temperature to get too hot or too cold, our blood sugar levels to get too high or too low, and so on. All conditions need to be at that just right levels for the body to perform at optimal levels.

Which is exactly what the endocannabinoid system does. The endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-AG, both react with and activate cannabinoid receptors, which in turn help our bodies regulate all these conditions.

This is where cannabis comes in. You see, the active compounds found in the cannabis plant can and do activate the same receptors that endocannabinoids do, and help the human body in a number of ways.

But what are these cannabinoid receptors? And what is it that makes them so special? Let’s find out.

What are Cannabinoid Receptors?

Cannabinoid receptors are just what they sound like. They are molecules which can be found on the surface of cells and cell membranes which are constantly listening to and monitoring the conditions outside of the cell. They are responsible for transmitting relevant information about changing conditions to the rest of the body, so that it can react accordingly.

While there are probably hundreds of different receptors at work in the Endocannabinoid system, the two main ones are CB1 and CB2. Let’s look at both in turn.

CB1 Receptors

The cannabinoid receptor type one, or the CB1 receptors as they are more commonly known, are an essential part of not only the body’s endocannabinoid system, but the entire nervous system. 

Found in the central nerve system, the CB1 receptors are one of the most abundant receptor types in the brain and regulate most of the brain’s functions. They can also be found all over the body, mostly transmitting messages sporadically across the body and the skin. Both anandamide and 2-AG bind do and activate CB1 receptors, helping the body find and stay in balance.

At the same time, CB1 receptors can also be thought of as THC receptors, since they are directly targeted by the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive and intoxicating compound found in cannabis. This makes CB1 receptors responsible for the many euphoric effects of cannabis.

Among other effects, the CB1 receptor binds with THC, and can help cannabis users feel high, experience pain relief, induce sleep and hunger, and can even impair memory and cognitive functions. On the other hand, cannabidiol (CBD) acts as an antagonist, and blocks the CB1 receptors rather than activating them. Which is also why CBD is thought to counteract some of THC’s effects.

Recent research in the CB1 receptor has revealed that it is an encoded and hardwired part of our DNA, and is created by something called the CNR1 gene. Long story short, the article concludes that all humans contain CB1 receptors, though in varying qualities. Some cannabis users may experience a decrease in the CB1 reception in their brains. However, since this is a naturally occurring system, a couple days of abstinence re-sensitizes the system and brings back the expression of CB1 proteins to normal levels.

CB2 Receptors

Cannabinoid receptor type 2, or CB2 receptors are quite different. To begin with, they are not located on the brain, and instead can be found all over the body on immune cells. These cells travel throughout the body via blood, and can also be found in the spleen, liver as well as some bones.

The CB2 protein or receptor is also encoded into the human DNA through the CNR2 gene, making it an extremely important part of our bodies. When activated, the receptor plays a vital role in turning on intracellular processes which promote homeostasis and help the body fight numerous types of diseases. At the same time, CB2 receptors also promote cell survival and regeneration, and help the body regulate and manage inflammation.

As a result, while the CB2 receptors are present in lower quantities than CB1, they serve equally important purposes in our bodies, and can be activated through the cannabinoid THC.


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