Even though medical marijuana or cannabis has been used for thousands of years for both medication and recreation, only recently have we discovered how it works to have its effects on the human body. In the early 1990s scientists first identified endocannabinoids and the cannabinoid receptors where they interact.
Naturally Occurring Messengers in Your Body
Endogenous cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids,
are chemical compounds that are produced naturally by your body.
They work as neurotransmitters similar to dopamine and serotonin.
You can think of these neurotransmitters as messengers within the nervous system.
They are produced by one cell and change the activity of another cell where the receptor is located.
Suppressing Anxiety, Inflammation, and Muscle Spasms
Major groups of Cannabinoid receptors have been identified as CB1 and CB2, and there are likely many more.
These receptors are found in the central and peripheral nervous systems. The majority of CB1 receptors are found in the brain and CB2 receptors are found predominantly in the immune system.
They appear to help us maintain our health by working to suppress certain nervous system reactions such as anxiety, inflammation and muscle spasms.
Image thanks to Coaster420 via Wikimedia Commons
The dominant cannabinoids that are produced naturally by your body include anandamide, palmitoylethanolamide(PEA), and 2-arachidonoylglycerol(2-AG). These and other cannabinoid molecules are found throughout your body and work to regulate systems in many different ways.
Exactly "How" These Work is still a Mystery
Anandamide has been dubbed the "bliss molecule". This and similar compounds are found in dark chocolate and seems to play a role in appetite, motivation, and pleasure. Research has also shown that it is involved in many bodily activities including memory, pain, depression, and fertility.
PEA has been demonstrated to bind to a receptor in the cell-nucleus (a nuclear receptor) and exerts a great variety of biological functions related to chronic pain and inflammation. The research on this is not perfectly clear but it seems to enhance anandamide activity and act as a natural anti-inflammatory agent. Other scientists have found that this compound helps to reduce the raised intraocular pressure of glaucoma.
2-arachidonoylglycerol is an endocannabinoid that attaches to the CB1 receptors. It is found at high levels in the central nervous system where it is much more abundant than anandamide. It has been found to suppress your body's reaction to stress by suppressing the release of steroid hormones. There is also research that seems to show that 2-AG plays a role in suppressing the growth of cancer cells.
New Effects are being Discovered and New Combinations are being Studied
All of these endocannabinoids are thought to play a role in many different bodily functions but the research is not clear. More research is being done and studies are ongoing to better understand the actions and interactions within this class of molecules.
Marijuana works by manipulating this system with the introduction of additional cannabinoid compounds that attach to your body's natural cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoids that are produced by plants are known as phytocannabinoids and researchers have identified at least 85 different phytocannabinoid compounds in marijuana, but again the precise actions and interactions are not well understood.