Did you know you have an endocannabinoid system? A year ago, I didn’t either. That’s because unless you’re a research scientist or work in the field of medical cannabis, it’s unlikely you’ll ever have heard of it. And yet, the endocannabinoid system has been hailed as “the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”
Why do so few people know about the endocannabinoid system?
It might have something to do with how the endocannabinoid system (ECS) was discovered. Back in the 1990s, scientists were trying to understand how THC, the psychoactive substance in the cannabis plant, affects the body. What they uncovered was a complex network of receptors (CB1) in the brain and central nervous system that were a perfect fit for the THC molecule.
Soon after, another type of receptor (CB2) was discovered in the immune system, gut, and many of the body’s major organs. But that was only part of the puzzle. The hunt was on to find out whether the body produced its own cannabis-like chemicals, and with the identification of the first endocannabinoid, Anandamide, they had their answer.
What does the endocannabinoid system do?
What scientists have realized is that the endocannabinoid system fine-tunes most of our vital physiological functions, bringing balance to everything from sleep, appetite, and pain to inflammation, memory, mood, and even reproduction. So in basic terms, it’s like an orchestral conductor, ensuring that no one section drowns out the other.
So, it’s time to bring this fascinating biological system out of the laboratory, and get to grips with some endocannabinoid system basics.
1. Humans aren’t alone in having an ECS
As humans beings, we’re not special for having an ECS. Not only is the endocannabinoid system found in all vertebrates, but scientists also discovered cannabinoid receptors in non-vertebrate sea-squirts, suggesting an evolutionary process dating back 600 million years ago.
2. Endocannabinoid receptors are the most abundant neurotransmitter receptors in the brain
Most of us have heard — they’re the chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and body. Serotonin and dopamine are perhaps the most well known examples, but it’s the endocannabinoid Anandamide, also classed as a neurotransmitter, that has the most receptors in the brain.
3. Increased endocannabinoid system activity has been noted in many diseases
As the endocannabinoid system’s modus operandi is to bring balance to the body, it’s no surprise that scientists have observed elevated ECS activity in a number of illnesses. Everything from neurodegenerative diseases to rheumatoid arthritis and cancer have shown changes in endocannabinoid levels and greater receptor expression.
4. ‘Endocannabinoid System Deficiency’ might be a cause of some illnesses
But what happens if the ECS becomes depleted? Scientists have observed how, in certain conditions associated with oversensitivity to pain such as migraines, fibromyalgia, and IBS, the ECS appears to have become weakened. The theory is known as Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency, and it is believed that supplementing the body with compounds from the cannabis plant can correct this deficiency and improve symptoms.
5. The ECS explains why medicinal cannabis has a therapeutic effect
Prior to 20th century prohibition, cannabis had been used for thousands of years to treat a whole host of ailments, like epilepsy, headaches, arthritis, pain, depression, and nausea. Back then, nobody knew why the plant showed such therapeutic versatility. The discovery of the endocannabinoid system soon shone new light onto the medicinal effects of cannabis.
According to Dustin Sulak, a leading medical cannabis expert: “Research has shown that small doses of cannabinoids from cannabis can signal the body to make more endocannabinoids and build more cannabinoid receptors.” He goes on, “I believe that small, regular doses of cannabis might act as a tonic to our most central physiologic healing system.”
6. You don’t have to break the law to give your endocannabinoid system a boost
Currently, medical cannabis-friendly countries are in the minority across the planet. So what can you do if can’t legally access the plant?
Well, you could consider trying CBD, a non-psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant that has a whole host of health benefits, such as reducing inflammation, calming feelings of anxiety, and even lowering the frequency of epileptic seizures. CBD is normally extracted from cannabis plants with less than 0.2% THC, commonly referred to as hemp or industrial hemp, allowing it to be bought legally in most countries worldwide.
Another option is to peel yourself off the sofa and get moving. Scientists have found that prolonged aerobic exercise increases levels of the feel-good endocannabinoid anandamide. Diet is also a useful target. Increasing your intake of Omega 3, found in oily fish or healthy seeds like flax or hemp, can help support endocannabinoid brain signalling.
7. Most doctors know very little about the endocannabinoid system
With the ECS playing such a central role in our health, you would think that any self-respecting member of the medical profession would have some knowledge of its existence. But in mainstream medicine, the endocannabinoid system remains rather a pariah.
In 2013, a survey was conducted asking medical schools in the United States whether the ECS formed part of their curriculum. The authors found that only “13% teach the endocannabinoid system to future doctors.”
So now you’re endocannabinoid savvy, there’s no turning back. Join me and start spreading the word to all who will listen. It’s time that the ECS is given the attention it deserves, both by our healthcare providers and the public at large.