The Endocannabinoid System
We all know that science can be a bit overwhelming sometimes, so it is important to understand the role of the endocannabinoid system and how CBD works in conjuction to assist the body’s everyday functions. If you are into science, this is going to be your favourite blog post! If you are like me and still have flashbacks to high-school science class, just hold on, because this will be better than you expected.
What Is the Endocannabinoid System?
Let’s look at the word “endocannabinoid.” “Cannabinoid” comes from “cannabis,” and “endo” is short for “endogenous,” which means that it is produced naturally inside of your body.
So “endocannabinoid” means cannabis-like substances that naturally occur inside us. Sounds pretty simple right!?!
The ECS itself is made up of three parts:
- The Endocannabinoids
- The receptors in the nervous system and around your body that endocannabinoids and cannabinoids bond with
- The enzymes that help break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids
Not only is the ECS a natural part of our bodies, it’s a crucial one. The Endocannabinoid system was discovered in the 1990’s. I’m really not sure how it was never discovered before then considering all the strides in the medical field. There are so many claims out there, both good and bad, that it is hard to wade through all of the supposed data to find what is accurate. With so many seemingly unrelated conditions that are claiming to be helped with CBD, you might wonder if it is just hype or is there some fact in there somewhere. The truth is that medical science backs up many of these claims, and the reason for the effects have to do with the size and scope of the endocannabinoid system itself.
The Endocannabinoid System: Crucial for Homeostasis
To understand the ECS, it first helps to understand what homeostasis is. Here is the heavy “science” stuff.
Basically, homeostasis is your body’s efforts to keep everything in the right zone and completely balanced. It tries to keep your internal environment stable no matter what’s going on in the environment around you. Think of all the gauges in the dashboard of a car or airplane. Those all tell the operator whether things are—or aren’t—operating in the proper zone.
Just like electronics around your home, your body works continuously to monitor important levels and functions in your body. Is your temperature too high, too low, or just right? Are your hormone levels what they should be? Is your heart beating too fast? Do you need fuel or rest? Is too much of something building up in your bloodstream or inside of your cells?
When something is operating outside of the right range, your body activates your ECS to help correct what is going on. So when you’re really hot and begin to sweat, thank your ECS for working to cool you down. Stomach growling? That’s your ECS helping remind you to eat because you need fuel.
does this via cannabinoid receptors found in select tissues. We have (at least) two types of cannabinoid receptors:
- CB1 which is in the central nervous system (brain and nerves of the spinal cord)
- CB2 which is in the peripheral nervous system (nerves in your extremities), the digestive system, and specialized cells in the immune system
Cannabinoid receptors are believed to be among the most plentiful in our central nervous system. How did we go so long and have no idea this ECS even existed?!?
Through those receptors, the ECS helps regulate many important functions, such as:
- Immune function
- Motor control
- Temperature regulation
Your body activates the ECS when things are out of whack and the ECS will only impact what it needs to in order to get your system back in alignment.
Once the endocannabinoids have done their job and brought things into balance, certain enzymes come along to break them down and prevent them from going too far and upsetting the balance in the opposite direction.
What does it do?
It’s pretty impressive what the human body can do.
Someone who is ingesting CBD is very different from someone who smokes marijuana and floods their system with cannabinoids. This is where the psycho-active properties come into play.
Homeostasis is essential to our health and survival, so when the ECS isn’t working properly, it can cause a lot of problems for you. It is just like when our spine is out of alignment, it can cause alot of pain and inflammation until we get it adjusted and put back into place.
Because cannabis products can stimulate activity of the ECS, they’re obvious targets for potential treatments, and a ton of research is going on around right now the world. We also have medications made from synthetic (lab-created) cannabinoids, such as the drug nabilone which my father took as part of his chemotherapy treatments 27 years ago to control the nausea.
We’re already seeing a lot of research on cannabinoid-based treatments and we’re likely to see more as we gain a better understanding of the system and the substances. Changes in the legal status in Canada have allowed more studies to investigate this further. We are definitely headed in the right direction but we still have a long way to go.
The Role of Receptors and Enzymes
When someone smokes marijuana, a cannabinoid from the plant attaches to the CB1 receptor in the brain and creates a high. This cannabinoid is called THC.
While THC and anandamide are similar, anandamide doesn’t get you high like THC. Anandamide does have a calming effect, though. In fact, it gets its name from ananda, the Sanskrit word for bliss. Sounds blissful doesn’t it.
The reason anandamide doesn’t get us high and THC does, lies with something called the FAAH enzyme. FAAH’s job is to break down anandamide and other endocannabinoids. It works quickly on the ones the body creates, but it can’t break down THC. That means THC sticks around for a lot longer and therefore has a much greater effect. Is this all starting to make a little more sense now? I know it can definitely be confusing but this explains why THC can be found in your system for days and months after you have smoked (depending on how often you smoke).
In the brain, cannabinoids and endocannabinoids work as neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that deliver information from one cell to the next.) Neurotransmitters all interact with a lot of different receptors and thus have a lot of different effects.
A plant-based cannabinoid that’s gotten a lot of attention from researchers is CBD. It has non-intoxicating properties, so its benefits come without the high of THC. One known function of CBD in the brain is to stop the FAAH enzyme from breaking down anandamide, so the anandamide can have more of an impact. That’s believed to be why CBD can help treat anxiety disorders.
As scientists have learned more about the ECS, they have also discovered several conditions that appear to be related to de-regulation of the system, which is called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). CECD isn’t a disease itself but is an umbrella term encompassing conditions with this common feature.
The CECD conditions include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
These conditions tend to be resistent to most traditional treatments, so researchers are looking into cannabis-based alternatives. We currently have many clients that take CBD for those three conditions listed above with great success.
These conditions also generally involve more than one system—which makes sense when you look at the areas influenced by the ECS.
For example, fibromyalgia involves the central and peripheral nervous systems, the immune system, the endocrine (hormonal) system, and even the digestive system. It’s also been linked to premature perimenopause, problems with conception, and early hysterectomy. Temperature sensitivity and poor memory (fibro-fog) are common symptoms.
That seems like a whole bundle of unrelated problems until you think about homeostasis and the ECS.
Researchers are still in the process of figuring out how to correct endocannabinoid deficiency, but the increasing availability of medical marijuana and CBD products has been largely embraced by the patient community and is likely to see a lot more research in that area.
Body functions affected by the Endocannabinoid System
In the brain:
One brain region that does not express many CB1 receptors is the brain stem. Responsible for respiration and circulation, which is a primary reason why cannabis overdoses do not cause respiratory depression and death, both of which are very possible with opioid overdoses.
As well as regulating:
- Body temperature
- Motor control
The Last Word
I know that was a bit long-winded and rather technical but it is important for you to truly understand the impact that THC and CBD can have in your body. When you understand the importance of the Endocannabinoid system and how it is tied to so many health issues, it becomes increasingly important to investigate how CBD and/or THC can help you.