Medical cannabis can sometimes seem like a catch all panacea. After all, in states where it’s legal, cannabis can be prescribed for conditions as varied as Multiple Sclerosis, PTSD, epilepsy, chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, anorexia, nausea, glaucoma and cancer.
From an outside perspective it seems counterintuitive that a plant officially classified by international drugs treaties as having no therapeutic effect, might improve the symptoms of so many diseases.
But there is a little known physiological system that scientists believe might just explain why cannabis has such a broad therapeutic reach.
Endocannabinoid System – keeping our body in healthy balance
It’s called the Endocannabinoid System and was discovered relatively recently in the 1990s when scientists were trying to understand just how and why the cannabis compound THC affects the body. They realised that most mammals have a vast network receptors (CB1 and CB2) throughout the brain, central nervous and immune system, which act like locks on the surface of cells, waiting to be opened by cannabis-like chemicals called ‘endocannabinoids’ – endo meaning ‘within’ the body.
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But just what is the purpose of the Endocannabinoid System?
Well, here’s where things start to get interesting. The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) it turns out is the body’s own control mechanism keeping other physiological systems in balance. It’s been likened to a dimmer switch that constantly works to keep everything operating at an optimum level.
The ECS’s primary areas of modulation are sleep, appetite, stress, mood, inflammation, memory, reproduction/fertility and pain regulation.
We can look at the balancing role of the Endocannabinoid System from within the context of inflammation.
Inflammation is a natural response in the body to injury or infection, speeding up the healing process by removing pathogens or damaged tissue. But in certain instances this inflammatory response fails to turn off even though the threat is no longer present. This ultimately proves damaging to the body, and can potentially lead to autoimmune diseases, cancer and neurological degenerative conditions.
Scientists believe the body’s endocannabinoids regulate an out of whack inflammatory response, finding high concentrations of CB2 receptors in the joints of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, the colons of patients with Ulcerative Colitis and post-mortem brains of alzheimer’s patients; all conditions associated with chronic inflammation and suggesting Endocannabinoid activity to normalise inflammation levels.
Could a deficient Endocannabinoid System lead to disease?
Unfortunately, through the stresses and strains of modern living, the Endocannabinoid System can itself become depleted, meaning it cannot effectively carry out its role of bringing homeostasis or balance to the body. American neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher Ethan Russo has termed this ‘Endocannabinoid Deficiency’, suggesting that it lie at the root of many of those difficult to explain illnesses such as fibromyalgia, muscular sclerosis, IBS and migraines.
According to Dr Russo, “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.”
Russo suggests that by ‘topping up’ the body’s endocannabinoids with cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant, it’s possible to kick start the Endocannabinoid System, bringing balance and health to the body once more.
CBD and Epilepsy: bringing the endocannabinoid system back into balance again?
This ability of the cannabis plant to re-calibrate an over or underactive system can be seen in several recent examples of children suffering from extreme forms of epilepsy.
Cases like 4 year old Katelyn Barry. The granddaughter of Australian philanthropist Barry Lambert, she was diagnosed with the rare genetic condition Dravet Syndrome which saw her suffering hundreds of seizures a day.
Despite the best efforts by her medical staff, Katelyn’s condition did not respond to conventional treatment and her future looked bleak. Out of desperation, her parents turned to the internet where they came across cases of children in the United States, who after taking cannabis oil, had reduced the number of seizures almost to zero.
And so Katelyn began taking cannabis oil rich in Cannabidiol (CBD), which does not have any psychoactive effect, but has been found both anecdotally and in research to reduce the number of seizures in treatment resistant, pediatric epilepsy. According to Katelyn’s family, there was an immediate improvement in her condition, and to this date Katelyn has been seizure-free for over a year.
This would seem to support the theory that the plant cannabinoid down-regulates the excessive neuronal electrical activity associated with epilepsy. Right now, researchers don’t fully understand the mechanisms behind CBD’s seizure reducing effect, but in research being carried out at Sydney University, funded by Kateyln’s grandfather Barry, they hope to find out.
Lead scientist Professor Iain McGregor explained recently, “Cannabinoids appear to be providing extraordinary therapeutic effects in some children with paediatric epilepsy, but we lack a clear understanding of how they are achieving this.”
“Through this study, we will gain a better understanding of the cannabinoid components that provide these therapeutic effects, potentially leading to new medicines that could prove extremely effective.”
What can we do to take care of our Endocannabinoid System?
Following the advice of Ethan Russo, consuming phytocannabinoids in the form of the cannabis or hemp is one way to strengthen what scientists term as ‘endocannabinoid tone’. So in the same way that going to the gym gives more tone to our muscles, introducing cannabinoids like CBD can beef up our own natural endocannabinoid production, if it has become depleted.
But there are a whole host of endocannabinoid boosting techniques we can all incorporate if we’re not lucky enough to have direct contact with the cannabis plant.
1. Do some exercise: Studies show that as well as releasing endorphins when we do cardiovascular exercise, the body also produces the ‘feel good’ endocannabinoid, Anandamide, explaining that feeling of ‘runners’ high’.
2. Increase your intake of Omega 3: found to be vital to ECS health, without it scientists believe the endocannabinoid CB1 receptors may not form correctly, potentially resulting in “impaired emotional behaviour.”
3. Cut down on alcohol: Studies show that ethanol dampens the endocannabinoid system. If you’re an occasional drinker, it’s probably not a problem, but it is suggested that chronic or binge drinking can desensitize endocannabinoid signalling.
4. Eat your greens: Leafy green vegetables contain a natural chemical called beta-caryophyllene, with studies attributing its anti-inflammatory effect to an activation of the CB2 endocannabinoid receptor.
So there you have it. Until a few minutes ago, you were probably blissfully unaware you had an Endocannabinoid System, working tirelessly to keep you happy, healthy and on an even keel. But now you know, there’s no turning back. Be sure to look after it, and it will look after you.