Cannabinoids are able to elicit their natural balancing effects by interacting with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS consists of a series of receptors that are configured to accept cannabinoids – including endocannabinoids that are synthesized by the body, and phytocannabinoids that are found in plants like hemp. The ECS, responsible for regulating an array of physiological processes that are instrumental in maintaining health, was discovered less than 30 years ago.
While there’s evidence that cannabinoids have been used for their medicinal properties since the Stone Age, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that scientists began to understand how they encourage healing and homeostasis.
The journey to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system started in 1895 when researchers Wood, Sivey and Easterfield were able to isolate and identify the very first plant-derived cannabinoid, cannabinol (CBN). Forty years later, in the 1930s, R.S. Cahn was able to figure out the structure of CBN, which has demonstrated anticonvulsant and anti-inflammatory properties. Shortly thereafter, in 1940, R. Adams and others were able to identify a second cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD).
It wasn’t until 1964, however, that scientists began to be enlightened on the nature of cannabinoids, after renowned Israeli researcher Dr. Ralph Mechoulam and his colleagues first isolated and identified the psychoactive cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The year before, in 1963, Mechoulam and a team of researchers were able to identify the chemical structure of CBD. Those monumental research breakthroughs help set the cannabinoid research pipeline in motion.
In the two decades following these cannabinoid discoveries, scientists were able to learn more about the pharmacology, biochemistry, and clinical effects of the cannabinoids, but none were really able to understand the mechanisms behind why they worked. Researchers worked to find out how cannabinoids are potentially able to reduce nausea, quell seizures, relieve pain, improve sleep, and stimulate appetite on a molecular level.
In 1988, after scientists first located cannabinoid receptors in an animal’s brain, scientists started to understand how cannabinoids work. Before then, it was often speculated that cannabinoids produced their physiological and behavioral effects via nonspecific interaction with cell membranes. In 1990, Lisa Matsuda announced at the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine that she and her colleagues were able to successfully clone a cannabinoid receptor, opening up the door for scientists to efficiently study its mechanisms.
In the early and mid-90s, Mechoulam and colleagues located and identified two of the body’s naturally produced major endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. Discovering the presence of an endocannabinoid system, which regulates homeostasis in the human body, opened the door for greater breakthroughs on the therapeutic application potential of cannabinoids.
Scientists are still learning more about the role that the endocannabinoid system plays in our health and more research still needs to be done. They have established that the system, when working properly, helps regulate processes like sleep, appetite, digestion, mood, motor control, immune function, reproduction and fertility, pleasure and reward, memory, temperature regulation, and pain. In cases where the endocannabinoid system is disrupted and gets out of whack because the body fails to produce enough endocannabinoids, disease and disorders can develop. In these cases, supplementing with plant cannabinoids may be beneficial.
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