Have you wondered why we get high — not our own personal reasons for use, such as, relaxation or pain relief, but, why cannabis exhibits such a profound ability to affect both the mind and body. The short answer is that we can thank the endocannabinoid system, or ECS, for the plethora of beneficial effects provided by medical marijuana. The ECS is your body’s network of endocannabinoids, that acts as messengers, the messages are received at the body’s cannabinoid receptor sites. Each time one of your receivers picks up one of these transmitters it gives your cells instructions on how to behave. One example is the release of the endocannabinoid anandamide in response to physical exertion which is a key component of the “runner’s high” and other naturally occurring flow states.

Why We Get High

Cannabinoids like THC and CBD from cannabis are similar enough to endocannabinoids (cannabinoids produced by the body) that they are able to bind to your cannabinoid receptors. It’s like they speak the same language even if they have different dialects. This means that the messages sent by the plant compound are received loud and clear by the body. Since the ECS modifies nearly every system within the body marijuana is able to treat a wide range of symptoms. For those interested in a more detailed answer, here’s an overview of the ECS’s components and their functions.

Endocannabinoids and Enzymes
While five endocannabinoids have been discovered the two best understood are the cannabinoids anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Endocannabinoids production happens on demand when a neurotransmission is sent into the synaptic cleft, the open space between neurons. Based on the cells involved and how the message is received, your body produces endocannabinoids near the receptor site.

The process by which the cannabinoids are produced isn’t yet clear, but we do know that the body has no way to store the cannabinoids it produces, unlike. In fact, the body sends out enzymes like fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL) to breakdown any excess anandamide or 2-AG soon after they are released. You may have noticed “fat” or the more scientific “lipid” in both of those names and that’s because the cannabinoids are synthesized from fats. This dance of releasing cannabinoids and clearing them out quickly using enzymes is done by the body to maintain a state of balance or homeostasis.

Primary Receptors
Now that we’ve discussed the transmitters, it’s on to the receivers. The two primary receivers, simply named cannabinoid receptor type 1(CB1) and cannabinoid receptor type 2(CB2) while structurally similar the CB’s show differences in their primary locations throughout the body along with which of the endocannabinoids they interact with. CB1 receptors are activated by both 2-AG and anandamide Due to their location along the central nervous system(CNS) and your peripheral nervous system(PNS) CB1 receptors are able to regulate many functions relating to perception, mood and pain.

CB2 sites are expressed most heavily in the gastrointestinal system, immune system and its related organs. The brain also houses a CB2 receptors but not in the same concentration as CB1 receptors. 2-AG is the primary endocannabinoid that binds with CB2 sites. When activated your CB2 receptors have been shown to modify the body’s inflammation response throughout the gut and the rest of the body which is a crucial function in maintaining balance. When attacked by a pathogen, for example, inflammation helps to rid the body of the invader. However, if the body stays inflamed past that initial response it has negative consequences.

It’s About Balance
If there’s a single thread or theme that runs through the endocannabinoid system, its balance. Our endocannabinoid system meticulously regulates itself by synthesizing cannabinoids and enzymes to deactivated those cannabinoids in order to maintain homeostasis. Since ECS modifies so many of our internal systems profoundly the similar compounds produced by cannabis are equally far reaching. To answer that initial question of why we get high, ultimately, it’s about balance. Whether a patient is looking to soothe their inflamed intestines or calm an anxious mind cannabinoids, endo or phyto, are a valuable tool for remaining balanced.