What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is a relatively unknown molecular signaling system found in our bodies. The ECS has been identified as an important body system because it regulates a broad range of biological functions. It’s primary task is to keep your internal body functioning as it should regardless of the external conditions.
Its highly likely that the ECS controls or interacts with of all your other body systems that may be already familiar with, like the respiratory system or cardiovascular systems, for example.
Another interesting fact about the ECS is that it uses cannabinoids that your body already has. It might be a surprise you to know that you’re body produces cannabinoids, especially to those people who associate cannabinoids with medical marijuana or CBD products made from hemp.
The cannabinoids your body makes are called endocannabinoids, it then utilizes those like a source of fuel, for doing the work it needs to do in order to keep your body in balance.
The truth is that our body welcomes and readily utilizes plant based cannabinoids mainly because of our ECS. It naturally consumes the phytocannibiods and uses them to create an environment of homeostasis in the body.
The Anandamide that started it all
The Endocannabinoide System discovery was a process that began in 60 & 70’s but it did really take off until 1992 with the discovery of a fatty tissue substance in the brain that mimicked a cannabinoid. Scientists named it the Anandamide (see video below to hear the story behind it’s name). Of course the excitement of this discovery led scientists to further explore it’s origin, and eventually led the discovery of entire system of these neurotransmitters throughout our body.
Since it’s discovery, scientific research has been a slow process because of the legal climate causing difficultly in obtaining samples legally in order to properly study the system.
Watch the video below, it’s an interview with Professor Raphael Mechoulam on Live Doctors. The professor talks about how they had to illegally obtain cannabis in order to study plants compounds.
Eventual discoveries like those in the video above fueled the cannabis legitimization as a plant with medicinal benefits. Leading the movement towards medical marijuana being legalized in California 1996, the first state to take this step. Since then, many more states have followed suit, which further enabled more research.
Hemp as most people know by now is different than marijuana. Hemp is the high amounts of the compound known as CBD / and very low amounts of the psychoactive compound known as THC. This is important as THC, also known as tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that is responsible for the head high that it is widely known for. It’s worth repeating, Hemp is different than Marijuana.
The government finally recognized these differences between Hemp & Marijuana and with the Farm Bill of 2018 it has effectively signed into law the ability to grow, process and manufacture products made from hemp. Here’s a video from Sonny Perdue, the Secretary of Agriculture explaining more about Hemp’s legal status.
Since hemp contains just a trace amount of THC, the government removed it as a schedule 1 drug and is been deemed legal across the United States. You cannot become high from using hemp products such as CBD oil.
CBD is one of the cannabinoids known as ‘cannabidoil‘ a compound found in abundance within the Hemp plant. CBD is credit with many uses like managing anxiety, pain, and mood
This is where the ECS comes in. It immediately sends help to the source of pain, acting like a traffic control officer. It alerts the liver to create and send white blood cells, which are carried in plasma to the source of the wound. You will notice this as swelling.
A cannabinoid is a type of molecule that is found in humans (called endocannabinoids) and also in plants (called phytocannabinoids). It is important to understand that there are hundreds of different types of plant based or phytocannabinoids.
In Hemp, there are at least 112 known phytocannabinoids with THC and CBD being the most widely known. While some of these phytocannabinoids are found in other plants in nature, Hemp is very special because it just so happens to contain a lot of CBD.
Why Is This Important?
The reason that it is very important that
phytocannabinoids are found everywhere in nature is that they are all being
used by your ECS to work alongside the endocannabinoids that your body is
making. Endo = within.
Some common foods that contain phytocannabinoids include carrots, clove, black pepper, Echinacea, broccoli, and ginseng. These cannabinoids all combine to interact with the ECS to spur it toward its job. They activate the system and including more of them in your diet can boost the Endocannabinoid System and even push it toward creating more receptors to take in the cannabinoids for use.
How The ECS Works
In order to fully comprehend the workings of
the Endocannabinoid System, you must first know the parts of the system. It is made of three basic
pieces that all function independently of each other but rely upon each other.
- Enzymes – these primarily are responsible for breaking down cannabinoids, once they’ve been accepted into a cell and used up. The enzymes break the used molecules into rubbish that they help to remove from the body as waste.
- Receptors – There are two types of receptors that bind with cannabinoids in the body. These receptors are located on the exterior walls of cells, likely on the cells in areas that are in most need of them. These cells might be more out of balance than others and so receptors are formed there. The cannabinoid binds to the receptors like a key in a lock and then are granted access into the cells. The two types of receptors have been nicknamed CB1 and CB2, rather than saying endocannabinoid receptor 1 or 2.
- Endocannabinoids – The cannabinoids produced by the system, which seem to be created at the behest of the enzymes of the ECS, are then sent to the receptors where needed. More is still being learned about the intricacies of this system. One thing that we know for a fact is that some other plant cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids) are able to bind directly to these receptors as well if they are small enough. Some phytocannabinoids are too large to bind directly to receptors but they can antagonize the system to work faster, make more receptors, and more.
From Consumption to Use
Once the cannabinoid is consumed and enters
the body, it is absorbed into the blood supply where it begins its journey to
find a receptor. Using CBD as an example, let’s map the journey.
The CBD molecule travels the body in search of
a receptor. It travels within the neural pathways primarily. This means that it
will generally be concentrated in the gut region of the body, near the spinal
column, and some will travel to the brain via the neural network.
What is a neural network? It’s very unique and
amazing. The neural network refers to the massive network of nerves in the body
that branch like tree roots from the spinal column that is the main trunk of
the tree, so to speak. There are 31 branches that stem from this tree, in both
directions from the center of the body.
These branches also have thousands of
offshoots that reach the tiniest places of your body, including things like
your fingertips, your inner ear, and the back of your eyes. All of the
sensations from outside stimulus is sent to the brain via the neural network.
Thoughts that are created within your brain and travel to the part of the body
that you need to move. If a signal reaches the brain that pain is felt in the
knee, your entire body is alerted to the pain.
This is where the Endocannabinoid System comes in. It immediately sends help to the source of pain, acting like a traffic control officer. It alerts the liver to create and send white blood cells, which are carried in plasma to the source of the wound or pain. You will notice this as swelling or inflammation.
The ECS also uses the cannabinoids floating in the ECS to help block pain signals to the brain. This is how pain can be reduced. If you have more cannabinoids available, more pain is blocked. By utilizing the neural network, many signals can be blocked as the ECS deems necessary. This is how many symptoms of illness and chronic conditions are alleviated.
Some of the Things the ECS Can
When the Endocannabinoid System is properly fueled with enough of
the right type of cannabinoids (they all seem to be better at doing certain
things and CBD is the one that appears to do most) it is capable of directing
the body systems to bring balance and block impulses that help alleviate the
- Depression/poor thought patterns
- Reduce the progression of cancer (in lab rats and gerbils – not proven in humans yet)
- Neural protectant – Protectively coating the nerves as it travels within the network.
These things are all able to translate into
helping with many conditions for people and animals alike. In fact, all
mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles have an ECS. The only thing that scientists
are aware of that do not, are
Homeostasis – What Is It and Why
Does It Matter?
Homeostasis is a scientific term that is used to refer to the state of balance and processes of keeping the equilibrium of the body by maintaining this balance at a cellular level. Homeostasis that is not in balance, when there is in fact not homeostasis, illness, and sickness is the result.
Humans seem to have innately known this by saying things like “I’m feeling a bit off today.” How right they really were. The body is essentially a very finely tuned machine; think of it as an engine. When the proper levels of oil aren’t maintained, the engine works harder and gets hot. When windshield wipers are in poor condition, you can’t see in the rain.
It can reduce pain by intercepting excessive messages from reaching the brain, but only when it has enough endocannabinoids or phytocannabinoids available. We’re also learning that aside from cannabinoids, terpenes also can play a role in the stimulation of the ECS.
In the body, when something is amiss, the body sends messages to the brain and the ECS is kicked into gear to try to help. If it doesn’t have enough fuel – in the form of cannabinoids – then it can only do just so much. This is why supplementing the diet with more phytocannabinoids like CBD Oil, particularly ones that we know are more potent in their ability to target specific ailments, is prudent.
There are even conditions that are being
attributed to a poorly functioning ECS. Fibromyalgia is being explored as a
possible failure of the ECS to function correctly. This makes sense as the
victims of Fibromyalgia never know where their pain will be located or when it
will come upon them or go into remission. They have no homeostasis most of the
time, particularly when they are experiencing flare-ups.
Very Intricate Details of Body
The truth is that we are still continuing to learn about the Endocannabinoid System and the body. The science is getting better knowledge almost daily, thanks to the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana that started the ball rolling.
We know that CBD and marijuana are not cures
for anything. We know that they help by activating and boosting the ECS. We
know that the ECS then makes moves to shift the body back to balance. It can do
this by sending assistance by directing the right body systems to send white
blood cells, enzymes, and other significant biological help via chemical
It can reduce pain by intercepting excessive
messages from reaching the brain, but only when it has enough endocannabinoids
or phytocannabinoids available. We’re also learning that aside from
cannabinoids, terpenes also can play a role in the stimulation of the ECS.
Terpenes are the compounds found in plants
that give it specific tastes and aromas. Rosemary and Pine have very specific
terpenes. Citronella has terpenes that send bugs running away, for example.
Some of these terpenes are being studied very extensively that are allowing
scientists to work with growers of cannabis to create specific strains of
either plant that are higher in CBD and plus certain types of terpenes.
One terpene, Caryophyllene, is capable of
interacting by directly binding with CB2 receptors and acting much like a
cannabinoid. Right now, it is the only terpene known that can do this, but
there are likely thousands yet to be tested.
More Research Needs to Happen
While we know so much already, the doors are
just beginning to open when it comes to knowledge about the Endocannabinoid System and what
interacts with it. We’re learning what it can do and how it can do it, but no
one knows as of yet exactly how it knows what to do.
Funding is beginning to not just trickle but
pour into research as scientists have high hopes for the role that Cannabidoil and the
Endocannabioid System may play in cancer treatment. There are medications that have been
developed from CBD, most namely Epidiolex, which treats seizures for those with
Epilepsy. The main active ingredient is cannabidiol (CBD). The FDA has approved
the drug but only as a last resort. For now, people need to try other drugs and
fail with them. Many afflicted with epilepsy turn to CBD oil instead.
For now, we wait while more is learned but one
thing is clear. The ECS is definitely the most important body system that you
have and you should understand it as much as you can and continue to learn
about the discoveries made as they happen.