Keeping healthy has always been a balancing act between eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, and avoiding stress.
Luckily for us, our body is also trying its best to keep us in equilibrium, making up for all or lifestyle shortcomings and excesses. It does this through the endocannabinoid system – a vast network of receptors and cannabis-like chemicals – which acts like a dimmer switch, subtly increasing or diminishing activity in the body in order to return it to a state of homeostasis again.
This balance or ‘endocannabinoid tone’ is dependant on the optimum expression of the two main endocannabinoid receptors: the CB1 receptor found principally in the brain and central nervous system and the CB2 receptors in the peripheral nervous system, gut and immune system.
If there is too much CB1 activity there might be metabolic problems such as diabetes and obesity. Not enough CB2 receptors could lead to excess inflammation.
Likewise the production of too much or too little of the body’s endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG accompany health conditions as varied as depression, PTSD, autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases.
So what are the physical signs that your endocannabinoid system might be struggling to maintain its balance?
1. You are particularly sensitive to pain
Scientists have noticed both endocannabinoid receptors play an important role in modulating pain and inflammation. For example, suppressing the CB1 receptors brings about heightened sensitivity to discomfort and CB2 activation has been noted to reduce pain and inflammation in a variety of preclinical models.
The body’s natural cannabis-like chemicals also play an important role, but not always through the endocannabinoid receptors: anandamide for example fits perfectly into the vanilloid (TRPV1) receptor, bringing about a pain relieving effect. Researchers have also observed that increasing the amount of anandamide in the body by inhibiting the enzyme (FAAH) that causes its metabolization, also reduces pain sensitivity.
Neurologist and cannabinoid researcher Dr Ethan Russo suggests that many conditions characterized by a hypersensitivity to pain such as migraines, Fibromyalgia and IBS, could share at their root a type of endocannabinoid deficiency. In an interview with Project CBD he says, “If you don’t have enough endocannabinoids you have pain where there shouldn’t be pain. You would be sick, meaning nauseated. You would have a lowered seizure threshold. And just a whole litany of other problems.”
So if you have been battling with chronic pain, there is a reasonable chance that you are lacking what’s been termed ‘endocannabinoid tone’ i.e. you’re not producing sufficient endocannabinoids.
One way of increasing anandamide levels in the body is by inhibiting the enzyme (FAAH) that causes it to break down in the first place. While some synthetic options have been tested with varying success in the lab, the cannabis plant holds its own natural solution in the form of the cannabinoid Cannabidiol (CBD). So by taking CBD, the production of FAAH is suppressed, levels of anandamide rise, endocannabinoid tone strengthened and chronic pain reduced.
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2. You are feeling anxious or depressed
One of the areas of most endocannabinoid activity is in the brain and central nervous system, in particular in the ‘emotional’ limbic system which modulates synaptic neurotransmission. Studies show that how we feel is indeed affected by endocannabinoid signalling.
The better the ‘endocannabinoid tone’, the less anxiety and depression experienced. In fact when scientists developed a drug for obesity that blocked the CB1 receptor, an unwanted side effect was increased levels of anxiety in patients who discontinued the drug as a result. In general, lower levels of the ‘bliss’ endocannabinoid anandamide have been observed in subjects suffering anxiety, while in contrast levels of 2-AG were found to be significantly low in depressed patients.
Augmenting CB1 receptor activity is proposed as a way of reducing depression and anxiety. Once again, CBD’s inhibition of the anandamide metabolizer FAAH makes it an interesting therapeutic tool, as well as its interaction with the serotonin receptor 5HT1-A, which brings about a mood enhancing, anti-anxiety effect. Studies have also shown the non-psychoactive cannabinoid to be effective at reducing symptoms associated with social anxiety, such as cognitive impairment and discomfort while speaking.
Another alternative to get your endocannabinoid system in shape again is by doing cardiovascular activity. Exercise, which has been proven to be as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression, increases levels of anandamide in the brain, contributing to the euphoric feeling known as ‘runner’s high’.
3. You’re addicted to junk food
It would be easy to think that there can never be enough endocannabinoid activity in the body. But in the case of metabolic conditions like diabetes and obesity, this isn’t the case as both are associated with too much CB1 signalling.
In recent research carried out on rodents fed on a western style diet, an abnormally large desire for high fat/sugar foods was accompanied by elevated levels of endocannabinoids and dysregulated CB1 receptor activity.
The mice basically had a severe case of the munchies, something often experienced by cannabis consumers as THC, one of the main compounds in the plant, also activates the CB1 receptor, inhibiting the part of the brain that tells us when to stop eating.
The correlation between increased appetite and CB1 overactivity was also noted in a study on sleep deprived subjects who showed an uncontrollable urge to gorge on junk food. Scientists found that levels of 2-AG had increased by 80% which they attributed to the overstimulation of the CB1 receptors, causing the same ‘munchies’ sensation experienced by cannabis users.
Unfortunately, continued overeating will inevitably lead to weight gain, which in itself further over-excites the endocannabinoid system. Scientists have found that increased body fat augments endocannabinoid activity, as fat cells are capable of making yet more endocannabinoids. And so the vicious cycle continues.
But the good news is that by employing a sensible weight loss programme of reduced calorie intake and exercise, endocannabinoid levels do return to normal. Plus, increasing levels of the ‘good fat’ Omega 3 found in oily fish and seeds like hemp, flax and chia have been shown to reverse “the dysregulation of the cannabinoid system, improved insulin sensitivity and decreased central body fat.”
4. You have a chronic inflammation related illness
In reality, almost all age related illnesses have at their root chronic inflammation of some kind; everything from autoimmune disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disorders like alzheimer’s and parkinson’s, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Theories abound as to why this systemic inflammation develops, but oxidative stress caused by free radicals is considered a major factor.
In studies carried out on patients with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, most subjects were found to be in a state of excessive oxidative stress.
The result is a kind of biological rusting, with one corollary being chronic inflammation, due to the overproduction of cytokines – small proteins affecting the communication between cells – that respond to infection bringing about the inflammatory response.
Inflammation per se is not bad and forms part of the tool kit of a functioning immune system. But it’s when the inflammatory response is activated despite there being no threat to the organism that problems arise.
In endocannabinoid terms, it’s the CB2 receptors that are most implicated in immune system function. Found on immune cells, when activated they reduce excess inflammation.
In various diseases related to chronic inflammation, increased CB2 expression has been found, suggesting that the endocannabinoid system is attempting to abide by its modus operandi and bring the body into balance again. Unfortunately, this CB2 upregulation isn’t usually enough to prevent any subsequent damage, particularly in cases when someone’s endocannabinoid system is performing suboptimally.
But this is where plant cannabinoids can step in. Anecdotal reports abound of patients suffering from illnesses as diverse as Parkinson’s, MS, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, finding relief from their symptoms and even possibly slowing down the onset of the disease through consuming cannabis.
According to biochemist Dennis Hill, who himself used cannabis to treat his prostate cancer, cannabinoids ‘have the ability to suppress the inflammatory cytokine cascade by inhibiting glial cell production of the cytokines interferon or interleukin’ (both of which are proteins used in the immune system response). ‘Here we see the seeds of chronic inflammation dissolved by the modulation process of cannabinoids bringing homeostasis to systems out of balance’.
Not only that, but as a powerful antioxidant, cannabis can help protect against those pesky free radicals that have brought about the inflammation in the first place. Something acknowledged by the US Federal Government in its patent entitled “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants,” in which it states that cannabinoids are “useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.”
5. You have a difficult to treat skin condition
As the largest organ in the body, it should come as little surprise that the endocannabinoid system is also present in our skin. Scientists believe that disruption to the endocannabinoid system’s balance might bring about the development of a whole host of skin diseases including acne, allergic dermatitis, psoriasis, hair growth disorders, and even skin cancer.
If we take a look at a common skin complaint like contact dermatitis, the endocannabinoid system performs a protective role against the associated allergic inflammation. Researchers noted on animal models lacking endocannabinoid receptors, allergic skin reactions were exacerbated. Conversely, activating the endocannabinoid receptors reduced inflammation.
One way of stimulating the skin’s endocannabinoid receptors is by topically applying phytocannabinoids such as CBD or THC onto problem areas.
So if you have a chronic skin condition that doesn’t seem to respond to conventional medicine, it could be because your endocannabinoid system is not functioning correctly. To give it a bit of boost, consider applying a topical cream containing CBD in conjunction with organic certified hemp seed oil, which will improve your skin from both inside and out.
For millions of years our endocannabinoid system has been working tirelessly to keep us and almost every other living organism on the planet in balance. However, fast forward to the 21st century and us humans seem to be doing our very best to undo its good work. But inevitably something has to give, and when we consider the endless list of modern day illnesses, it’s clear our health is suffering as a result.
So it’s time to sit up and take notice. Our endocannabinoid system is calling out for our attention. Are you going to listen?