The Endocannabinoid System
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) exists in every living vertebrate. It is incredibly old - according to scientists, it evolved over 500 million years ago. It’s built into our very existence and is crucial to our well-being. The word translates as “cannabis-like substances that naturally occur inside us,” and it was named as such after the plant that led to the discovery of its vast complexities and potentials.
The ECS is made up of three parts: endocannabinoids, nervous system receptor sites, and enzymes. It is essential for homeostasis, your body’s ability to maintain biological harmony in response to changes in the environment. When something isn’t quite right, your body activates the ECS to help correct it. For instance, if you’re too hot, the ECS is the foundation for activating the bodily functions that will help cool you down. If you’re hungry, the ECS helps remind you that you need to eat.
It does all this using the cannabinoid receptors that are found in the body - the endocannabinoids. Often these are confused with phytocannabinoids, the plant substances that stimulate cannabinoid receptors, such as cannabinol (CBN), cannabidiol (CBD), or tetrahydrocannabinol (THC; a psychoactive compound). Keep in mind that those are external to the human body, and what we are discussing is the receptors those phytocannabinoids bind to in the body. There are at least two known types of receptors (science thinks there are more):
CB1 - these are found primarily in the central nervous system, so the brain and nerves of the spinal cord.
CB2 - these are found in the peripheral nervous system, such as the skin, immune cells, bone, fat tissue, liver, pancreas, skeletal muscles, heart, blood vessels, kidneys, and the digestive system.
Through these receptors, the ECS helps to regulate bodily functions such as appetite, digestion, immune function, inflammation, mood, sleep, reproductive health, motor control, temperature, memory, pain, and pleasure or reward responses. It does this with uncanny precision, unaltering one system while it works on bringing the other back to homeostasis. Because of this, and their ability to stimulate the ECS, cannabis products are being heavily researched as potential treatment options for numerous concerns. The amount of research so far is quite astounding. Pubmed.gov, a free database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical research, alone has 20,000 results for the word “cannabis” and 25,237 results for the word “cannabinoid.” That’s a lot of scientific data, and the exploration, especially in the U.S., is just beginning.
We know from the scientific literature that a properly functioning cannabinoid system is essential for health, but can taking supplemental cannabis improve the ECS?
It looks promising. Research is demonstrating that even small doses of cannabinoids from the cannabis family can tell the body to make more of its own endocannabinoids and to increase the number of cannabinoid receptors. This is sometimes why those who try it out for the first time don’t immediately notice a difference, but by the second or third try, using a supplemental cannabinoid, their body has built more receptor sites. More receptors sites increase sensitivity to cannabinoids, making small doses more productive and more healing.
Fascinatingly, people can also suffer from endocannabinoid deficiency, called CECD, which has been linked to Fibromyalgia, migraines, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), among others. These are sometimes called “functional conditions” and tend to be resistant to most conventional medical treatments because they typically involve more than one system in the body, which is why researchers are using experimenting with cannabinoids as an option.
We also know that phytocannabinoids are beneficial for anxiety, inflammation, pain, nerve pain, nausea, vomiting, cancer, tumors, appetite, glaucoma, PTSD, weight loss, IBS, and as a muscle relaxer - and that is just scratching the surface.
In case there is any confusion, it is worth reminding that cannabis does not always mean marijuana. It is an unfortunate, prevalent, misconception. Cannabis is part of an order of plants (Urticales) that include industrial hemp, mulberry, elm, nettle, and hops. Cannabimimetics, or components of plants that engage the ECS, even come from plants outside of the Cannabaceae family and can have equivalent effects on the ECS. This includes, but is not limited to, echinacea, rosemary, black pepper, lavender, clove, cinnamon, cacao, truffles, kava, maca, holy basil, helichrysum, and even Omega-3’s (these engage the CB2 receptors of the ECS).
All in all, it’s worth some time, if you have it, to investigate the ECS and explore the benefits of cannabinoids in regards to health. You may find it can significantly improve yours.