The Endocannabinoid System
With the rise of popularity of CBD (and THC products if you live in states where it is legal), a great deal of interest has surfaced regarding the Endocannabinoid system.
Perhaps one of the most complicated and ill-understood systems in our body so far, it is a mysterious system that has only been recently studied.
Luckily, in the past few years, a few major studies have emerged, which look closely into the functions of the endocannabinoid system.
In this article, we’ll be discussing these studies, and try to explain the endocannabinoid system duties as much as possible, as they are understood to function by scientists to date.
An Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System
Studies related to Cannabis are emerging rapidly and the results form these studies are some of the most exciting discoveries in modern medicine.
In fact, research on cannabis is what led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, a new system in our body which was previously totally unknown!
The endocannabinoid system is not like other traditional systems in our body, in that it is not composed of a series of organelles, say like our digestive system.
Instead, the endocannabinoid system is actually a communication system. Specifically, it’s a biochemical communication system vital for regulating our everyday body functions and moods.
The endocannabinoid system was first discovered due to scientists finding a new type of receptor in our brain which responds to cannabis. Later on, they discovered compounds that naturally circulate in our body called “endocannabinoids” that circulate and bind to these receptors.
It is now established and proven in studies that cannabinoids (whether endogenous or exogenous) are able to modulate our body’s functions especially impacting the brain.
To this date, over 110 cannabinoids have been identified, with more expected to be discovered in the future.
So How Was It Discovered and What Does it Do?
You might be wondering, how come no one knows of the endocannabinoid system? And why isn’t it recognized a body system like other well-known systems such as the nervous system?
The answer to this lies in the fact that the endocannabinoid system has only recently been discovered.
By recently, we mean within the last 25 years. As late as the 1990’s actually.
It was found by accident by a scientists trying to figure out how THC worked to produce its effect.
Instead what they found was an incredibly complex system composed of an amazing network of cannabinoid receptors, which were found throughout the entire body.
Since its discovery, many cannabinoid receptors have been identified. The most prominent cannabinoid receptors are CB-1 and CB-2 which bind the body’s own endocannabinoid molecules.
Because it was discovered recently, the endocannabinoid system’s functions have not been entirely unraveled.
What is known so far though is that the endocannabinoid systems helps fine-tune most of the vital functions of our body.
It creates what physicians called “homeostasis”, or a state of balance in our body, and can affect almost everything from sleep, to appetite, pain, and even mood.
Unique Facts About the Endocannabinoid System
Although the endocannabinoid system was only discovered recently, many facts have been unveiled about the system.
- The Endocannabinoid system (ECS) has the most receptors involved in neuromodulation in the body and plays an important role in many diseases.
Research has revealed that almost all animals have an ECS.
Not only is the endocannabinoid system abundant in many animals, but its receptors are also found in huge numbers throughout the body.
Endocannabinoid receptors are believed to outnumber other receptors such as serotonin and dopamine receptors which are major receptors in the body.
Because of the endocannabinoid system’s function in maintaining homeostasis in the body, it is believed to be involved in many diseases.
Most prominently, the disease for which the endocannabinoid system is known to have an impact on are neurodegenerative diseases and rheumatoid arthritis. This means that targeting this system may be an effective treatment.
- The endocannabinoid system’s functions can be improved through diet and exercise.
Some studies have shown that exercising and maintaining a good diet can help boost the endocannabinoid system.
For example, one study showed that people who exercise regularly have elevated levels of anandamide, which is one of the endocannabinoids found in the body responsible for mood elation.
Moreover, certain foods consumed in the diet can improve the system’s function, most notably omega 3 fatty acids.
Taking exogenous cannabinoids such as CBD from hemp can also support the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and may even enhance its bodily signaling capabilities.
It is known that in many countries around the world, and for thousands of years, people have used cannabis and hemp to treat myriad conditions.
Although the users of cannabinoids back then may not of known why they were effective, they nevertheless experienced the beneficial effects and hence continued the use of them.
- Many doctors are not trained on the endocannabinoid system despite its rising importance.
Medical professionals in the U.S. are currently not taught about the endocannabinoid system in most medical schools.
In fact, a recent survey showed that only 13% of schools included the endocannabinoid system in their curriculums.
This is problematic because discussing the endocannabinoid system with your doctor may be difficult as they may not even be aware of it.
On the bright side, with the rising legalization of cannabis, more and more physicians are becoming aware of the endocannabinoid system and its importance in our bodies.
An Important Endocannabinoid System Activator: THC, The Hallmark of Cannabinoids
Among the many cannabinoids discovered so far, THC is by far the most well known one and also the most studied.
THC also has a bad reputation as a compound which can lead a “high” state, and hence the ban on this chemical.
Recently, regulators are increasing in dispute of the need for banning THC as it has been proven effect for pain relief especially in seniors, has shown a good side effect profile, and no apparent addictive properties.
THC is an abbreviation of the real name: Tetrahydrocannabinol. It is the main psychoactive component of cannabis. THC also refers to cannabinoid isomers which are compounds similar in structure to THC with similar effects on the body.
Just like most other pharmacologically effective metabolites of plants, THC is a type of lipid (oil) found in cannabis. In its natural function, it’s assumed to be part of plant’s self-defense mechanisms as in it can prevent insect and animal predation.
CBD: Another Major Player Amongst Cannabinoids
Cannabidiol (CBD) is another cannabinoid that has been studied extensively.
Many preclinical studies which have been sponsored by the U.S. government have indicated CBD’s great potential.
These studies show CBD to have anti-oxidant properties, anti-psychotic, and antiepileptic effects.
In fact, a study on more than 500 patients showed that those taking CBD had a decrease of 20% in the amount of seizures experienced.
The effect was so dramatic that the FDA even approved CBD as a drug for the treatment of epilepsy, rivaling other drugs already on the market.
In addition to the effects discussed, CBD can also bind to serotonin receptors in the body, leading to an elevation of mood and reduction in anxiety.
CBD and THC: A Great Synergistic Couple
What’s even more promising regarding THC and CBD is the fact that when administered together, they have a strong synergistic effect.
A synergistic effect is when two compounds working together produce an effect even better than the regular sum of the two combined by acting on endocannabinoid receptors.
CBD and THC’s synergy has been mostly proven in studies for neuropathy (disease of nerves) which is a painful condition that can occur in diabetic or cancer patients, and arthritis.
Moreover, clinical research carried out by GW Pharmaceuticals, a British firm, showed that CBD is most efficacious for pain relief when it’s taken combined with THC.
In summary, the endocannabinoid system is a vital system woven into the fabric of our entire body.
It is slowly becoming recognized as a major, highly regulatory and important communication system in our body, just as important as other systems such as the nervous system, digestive system, respiratory system, etc.
The endocannabinoid system’s effects are most noticeable in the brain where endocannabinoid receptors are most concentrated, but other parts of the body such as muscles and eyes also have endocannabinoid receptors.
The system would not function without cannabinoids, of which our body produces some which are constantly in circulation (endocannabinoids).
A deficiency in the endocannabinoid system can lead to altered body states, leading to anxiety and other symptoms. Luckily, these deficiencies can be treated by taking exogenous cannabinoids such as CBD!