What Is The Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) was discovered when scientists were studying the effects of THC, the psychoactive compound of cannabis, on the human body. They uncovered a vast network of special receptor sites (CB1) in the brain and central nervous system, into which THC fitted perfectly. Not long after, a second class of receptor was found (CB2), which left scientists pondering - if we have all these receptors in the body, surely we must produce our own cannabis-like molecules?
Their theory was proved correct with the discovery of anandamide, named after the sanskrit word for ‘bliss’. With it, they had their first endocannabinoid - endo meaning ‘within’ - a cannabinoid describing the unique compounds in the cannabis plant. Soon after, another endocannabinoid was discovered called 2-AG - all of which begged the question: what is the purpose of this cell communication network in the body?
What scientists observed was that in almost every disease state, there was some kind of endocannabinoid activity. But rather than being the cause of illness, it became clear that this increase in endocannabinoid signalling was in response to a dysregulation in the body. Scientists concluded that the endocannabinoid system works rather like a dimmer switch, upregulating or down-regulating activity in the body in order to restore balance again. That’s why it’s been termed a ‘homeostatic regulator’.
The work of the endocannabinoid system is all encompassing and includes the regulation of all our biological functions such as sleep, appetite, mood, reproduction, memory, immunity, cell growth, and even sexual arousal. Unfortunately, because of the taboo associated with the cannabis plant, the ECS is still barely taught in medical schools, despite being discovered over twenty years ago. The reality then is that most general health practitioners have no idea of its existence, let alone the role it plays in maintaining our health.
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What Happens if our Endocannabinoid System Gets out of Whack?
Most research into dysregulation of the endocannabinoid system has focused around endocannabinoid deficiency - a termed coined by neuroscientists and cannabinoid researcher, Ethan Russo. 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.” Russo sees a pattern between these symptoms and a number of conditions that, until now, modern medicine has found difficult to treat, namely migraine, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and fibromyalgia.
So if our own doctors don’t know or understand the ECS, it’s up to us to inform ourselves about and find our own ways to give the ECS some tender, loving care. That’s why we’ve put together some basic ‘do’s and don’ts’ for looking after your endocannabinoid system.
Take CBD Oil
Considering how the ECS was discovered, it should come as no surprise that compounds within the cannabis plant can strengthen the endocannabinoid system. THC directly activates the endocannabinoid receptors, in particular the CB1 receptors in the brain and central nervous system (hence the high). However, not everyone feels comfortable with the psychoactive effect, and in most countries in the world, cannabis containing THC is illegal.
Legal CBD oil on the other hand does not create a high feeling and is thought to support optimum ECS functioning. Contrary to what many people think, CBD does not bind directly with any of the endocannabinoid receptors. Instead, it is thought to increase endocannabinoid levels in the body by inhibiting the enzyme that breaks anandamide down. This could explain why patients with conditions associated with endocannabinoid deficiency, such as fibromyalgia, IBS and migraines, find CBD oil helpful for their symptoms.
We all know exercise is good for us, but it has extra importance for strengthening our ECS. That’s because when we do sustained cardiovascular exercise, we produce one of the key endocannabinoids, anandamide. In fact, scientists now believe that ‘runner’s high’ is as much about the effects of the anandamide as endorphins. Assistant Professor of Biology Greg Gerdeman describes how in one study in which the subjects ran for 30 minutes, “the increase of feelings of wellbeing in patients was tightly correlated to levels of anandamide in their bloodstream. So we started talking about anandamide as a neurobiological reward for running. It makes you feel good.”
But a note of caution, do not overdo exercise, as forced exercise can be a stressor to the body and actually decreases endocannabinoid receptor signalling.
Eat your Greens
When it comes to eating your greens, this is more than just getting your five fruits and veggies a day. That’s because leafy, green vegetables contain beta-caryophyllene, a type of terpene also commonly found in the cannabis plant. Beta-caryophyllene is unique in the world of terpenes, because it activates the CB2 endocannabinoid receptor found in the peripheral nervous system and the gut. This could be why in preclinical studies beta-caryophyllene has shown anti-inflammatory properties.
Boost your ECS with Omega 3 and 6
The body’s endocannabinoids are derived from and partly regulated by Omega 3 and 6. Therefore, it is vital that we include a health supply of essential fatty acids in our diet. Getting the right balance between Omega 3 and 6 is important - 2 parts Omega 6 to 1 part Omega 3 - a ratio that can be found in plant sources such as flax and hemp seeds, as well oily fish.
Most diets in the west contain far too much Omega 6, but are also Omega 3 deficient, which can lead to a decline in cognitive function, mental disorders, increased levels of degenerative disease, chronic inflammation, and joint pain. Scientists have also found that in mice, a lack of Omega 3 can disrupt CB1 signalling, bringing about “a change in the body’s mood controlling structures associated with impaired emotional behaviour.”
This was backed up in a study carried out on rodents given a diet rich in Omega 3, with researchers concluding that “this nutritional approach with dietary Omega 3 reversed the dysregulation of the cannabinoid system, improved insulin sensitivity and decreased central body fat.”
Reduce Stress Levels
There are very few things stress is very good for and our endocannabinoid system is no exception. Chronic stress is thought to be a key contributing factor behind endocannabinoid deficiency, reducing levels of the feel-good endocannabinoid anandamide and the stress buffer 2-AG. While most research has been carried out on animal models, individuals showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have low levels of 2-AG, similar in magnitude to major depression.
Have a Massage
A great way to reduce stress is by having a massage; what’s not to like about feeling more relaxed and loosening any tightened muscles. But it seems massage and similar soft tissue treatments also have a positive effect on our endocannabinoid system. A study carried out on osteopathic patients showed that levels of the feel-good endocannabinoid anandamide more than doubled after a treatment. So now there’s another reason to make a massage or osteopathy appointment.
Eat Junk Food
Remember what I said earlier about our endocannabinoid system becoming deficient? Turns out the ECS can also become overactive, which can be a contributing factor to metabolic conditions such as diabetes and obesity.
In a trial carried out on rodents fed 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. In effect, the mice had a severe case of the munchies. However, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Does the ECS imbalance cause the overeating or is it a result of excessive calorie intake? Either way, a diet of junk food inevitably leads to weight gain, and researchers now know that increased body fat further heightens endocannabinoid activity.
The good news is that starting a sensible weight loss programme of reduced calorie intake and exercise can recalibrate endocannabinoid levels and restore ECS balance. Scientists link endocannabinoid downregulation with an overall drop in body fat and insulin resistance, plus improved cholesterol levels.
Drink too much Alcohol
The relation between alcohol and our endocannabinoid system is dose dependent; a little wine for example and 2-AG levels increase a little; drink a lot and they skyrocket. Scientists believe this is just the endocannabinoids performing their neuroprotective role, and once the alcohol has been processed, everything returns to normal again.
However, the trouble starts when an occasional tipple becomes a chronic problem, and alcohol abuse can lead to endocannabinoid deficiency.
In one study, scientists explain how “long-term, high dose alcohol exposure may induce adaptations in eCB [endocannabinoid receptor] signaling that contribute to the maladaptive stress responses, anxiety and depression associated with acute and prolonged withdrawal in human alcoholics and alcohol-dependent rodents.”
So in effect, a depleted endocannabinoid system through alcohol abuse can lead to feelings of being unable to cope. This overwhelm and stress will prompt yet more drinking, further feeding the vicious circle of alcohol abuse.
Burn the Candle at Both Ends
Ever wondered why after a sleepless night, you get the urge to gorge yourself on junk food the next day?
Not enough sleep causes the endocannabinoid 2-AG to increase by 80%, with research showing tired participants more likely to fill themselves up on unhealthy food. Scientists believe this is simply a case of the munchies being caused once again by CB1 receptor overstimulation and could explain the link between long term sleep problems and excessive weight gain.
So never a better reason to eat healthily, lay off the booze, and get a good night’s sleep.
When it comes to endocannabinoid health, it’s a matter of incorporating common sense lifestyle changes to ensure your ECS is ticking over like a well-oiled machine. But if you want to know whether your ECS is out of balance, this blog post will tell you the 5 most common signs to look out for. And for more information on how CBD can correct endocannabinoid deficiency, we suggest this article as a good place to start.