How the Endocannabinoid System Impacts your Wellbeing
Learn more about the endocannabinoid system, how it works and why it’s important for your health, including your sleep, immune system, mental health and more.
Think of the body as a complex mechanism of interlocking systems built one on top of the other. Some of them you may already know. The circulatory system moves blood around the body. The pulmonary system moves oxygen to where it is needed most via the circulatory system. The endocannabinoid system is working right along with these, but is less well known.
If you have not heard of this system or didn’t encounter it in your biology text in school, you are not alone. Scientists only began in-depth research into the endocannabinoid system in 1988. Even then, the endocannabinoid system may have remained the preserve of academic papers if not for a resurgence of popular interest in alternative medicines and traditional treatments.
What the researchers have been discovering since then is upending long-standing medical wisdom about human physiology.
For instance, did you know endorphins produced by the pituitary gland may not actually be responsible for that high you feel when you go for a run? Current research is suggesting that may be due to products of the endocannabinoid system. What’s more, studies are showing the endocannabinoid system may play a critical role in:
- Memory formation
- Immune system responses
- Cardiovascular health
- Digestive health
- Bone and muscle development
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First: What is the endocannabinoid system?
The Endocannabinoid System and You
The endocannabinoid system is a complex cell-signaling system made up of three parts and plays a vital role in the proper functioning of the body’s central nervous system. At any time, your body may be experiencing fatigue, hunger, stress, anxiety or pain in response to internal or external stimuli. Endocannabinoids are similar to cannabinoids found in cannabis – but are produced by your body and are released to regulate these responses
If you are stressed, whether by a car that will not start or because you are late for work, endocannabinoids are released by your body by a yet-unclear mechanism.
These endocannabinoids match with the second part of the endocannabinoid system – cannabinoid receptors. Scientists have identified receptors CB-1 and CB-2. CB-1 receptors are present in the central nervous system (the brain and the spine) and CB-2 receptors are present in the peripheral nervous system (throughout the rest of the body). Endocannabinoids “fit” into the receptors like a key into a lock, triggering particular effects in the body.
Let’s go back to our example of being stressed. It is the action of the endocannabinoids locking onto the receptors that produces that calming effect and de-stresses the body. The endocannabinoid system appears to play a pivotal role in maintaining balance like this, (called ‘homeostasis’), in multiple systems throughout the body.
The endocannabinoid system is also “smart” and adaptive. It learns. When you have similar stressful events, it pumps larger amounts of endocannabinoids as needed.
Enzymes are the third part of the endocannabinoid system. The enzymes are responsible for clearing the endocannabinoids out of the system when their work is done.
The Endocannabinoid System, Medicine and Pharmacology
The endocannabinoid system has prompted much excitement in the medical and research communities because of its potential to shed light on problems that have stumped scientists for decades. CB-2’s role in the body’s anti-inflammatory response, for example, can help scientist better understand how to create drugs that help control autoimmune symptoms. CB-1 interaction with the central nervous system may allow doctors to understand addiction and certain mental illnesses so they can develop better treatments.
Drugs, like cannabis, that target the endocannabinoid system may be less harmful and toxic to the body because of where the bulk of CB-1 and CB-2 receptors reside. When managing pain, if you choose drugs that target the opioid receptor system, you not only run the risk of becoming severely addicted as evidenced by the current opioid epidemic, but death as well. This is because the majority of opioid receptors are found in parts of the brain responsible for automatic function, i.e. the beating of your heart or even breathing, itself. A flood of opioids to these parts of the brain can severely depress your nervous system’s function, which can kill you.
Endocannabinoid system receptors like CB-1 are located in the parts of the brain responsible for motor function, memory and others, which means an overdose is far less likely to result in death.
Remarkably, phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant such as THC or CBD can substitute for the body’s natural endocannabinoids and match the body’s receptor system exactly. If there’s a physical deficiency due to illness, medical cannabis can supplement what the body is missing – a key to the lock. It is, therefore, a much safer and more natural treatment.
Caring for your Endocannabinoid System
Scientists have put forward a theory that there may be something called Chronic Endocannabinoid Deficiency which, given the endocannabinoid system’s apparent importance to the body’s homeostasis, might be responsible for mysterious and debilitating conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, migraines and fibromyalgia.
This endocannabinoid system medical theory is still under investigation. What is better known is that two hazards of modern living, fast foods and stress, can cause damage to the endocannabinoid system over time. Preserving the function of the endocannabinoid system will require changes in diet and management of everyday stressors. Addition of Omega 3 rich foods, turmeric, probiotics and whole foods can help. Long-term use of prescription medication has also been noted to cause damage to the endocannabinoid system and prescription drug use should be cut down to what is absolutely required and be monitored by a doctor.
Certain activities have been shown to boost endocannabinoid production. If you like to sing and dance, you are in luck. Meditation, yoga and running will help too. Even in these COVID-19 times, try to create activities that allow you to interact with friends and family. Social interaction has been shown to be good for the endocannabinoid system.