Here Goes THC: Evolution Behind Cannabinoids
Cannabis produces THC that makes you feel good. Right? Have you ever asked why?
We have already written about endocannabinoid system. In short, it’s a network of receptors throughout the body that allows us to feel high when we consume THC. Is that an actual reason we have an ECS?
Euphoria is a biological side effect. Sure, you consume cannabis to get high or find relief, but it’s not a primary goal of your endocannabinoid system. Surprisingly, the ECS is much more powerful and has existed long before people discovered cannabis.
So, why do we have the endocannabinoid system?
People know cannabis for ages: history shows that our ancestors began to use hemp more than 7,000 years ago and got to know therapeutic properties of cannabis at least 3,000 years ago. It’s quite impressive, but our bodies were prepared for this match long before the cannabis plant had entered the scene. How do we know that?
We can trace the endocannabinoid system back in time and find that many different species have it. Science concluded that this system had played an important biological role because key components of the ECS evolved hundred of millions of years ago. Using knowledge of evolution and brain development, researchers at Queen Mary University in London suggested that
The expression of the CB1 receptor in so many different brain regions suggests that endocannabinoid signaling has been a fundamental and widely employed mechanism of synaptic plasticity throughout more than 400 million years of vertebrate brain evolution. Moreover, there is evidence that at least some of the physiological/behavioral roles of endocannabinoid signaling that have been discovered in mammals are also applicable to non-mammalian vertebrates, suggesting evolutionarily ancient origins.
Tracing back cannabis’ closest relatives, researchers estimate that cannabis evolved between 34 million and 6.38 million years ago, long after the ECS had evolved in animals. But why had it evolved in the first place?
The answer lies in our body and chemicals it produces called “endocannabinoids.”
Endocannabinoids are molecules created by cells for regulation of biological functions in the body and brain. You’ve probably heard about anandamide and 2-AG – these molecules interact with CB1 receptors and help to maintain homeostasis and support major biological functions. As a side effect, an interaction of these receptors with THC produces psychoactive effects.
Cannabinoids help cannabis, too
Okay, it’s clear why we have an ECS. But why does cannabis produce cannabinoids?
Basically, for survival. Cannabis is a widespread species that grows in hostile climates and drastically different conditions. Cannabinoids allow the plant to adapt to the harsh environments and survive.
Cannabinoids are produced in tiny glands called trichomes. They are typical for many species and serve to protect them in a variety of ways:
- Protection from insect herbivores;
- Protection from frost in colder habitats;
- Minimizing water loss in windy habitats;
- Preventing of overheating in dry, open habitats;
- Attracting pollinators or prey.
Production of THC is very similar to the production of nicotine and caffeine, which serve like natural pesticides that help deter insects. It might also assist to protect the plant from microbes. Plants don’t have immune systems like animals, so they produce chemical cocktails that protect them from infections. Studies show that cannabinoids indeed have anti-microbial properties. However, according to ethnobotanist Robert C. Clarke, there is no direct evidence supporting this idea in real gardens. This claim doesn’t deny the theory in general – THC might be effective in repelling particular insects or defending against specific microbes.
One of the possible roles of THC in cannabis is to protect the plant from ultraviolet radiation. Researchers at the University of Maryland exposed cannabis plants from all around the world to UVB rays and found that exposed cannabis plants produced more THC compared to non-exposed flowers. It makes sense considering the type of harsh environment where cannabis thrives: open areas lit with direct sunlight.
These findings show us that the endocannabinoid system exists for a reason. Cannabinoids are not just something we got used to; they are significant in maintaining a biological balance in organisms. Even if science cannot give us an exact answer, we still see that THC and other chemical compounds play a major role in the protection of plants and also provide us with a beautiful side effect of healing and relaxation.