The cannabis plant is truly one of nature’s most fascinating organic gifts and has been used for its psycho-activity by humans for thousands of years.
Going under the microscope in 1981, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component of cannabis, was found to bind and activate specific receptors in the brain responsible for releasing our very own feel-good neurotransmitters.
Scientists later wondered whether or our bodies could produce its own self-generated cannabis-like compound to bind with these receptors. Research soon led to the finding of cannabinoid molecules made within our very own bodies!
These cannabinoids, also known as endocannabinoids, act as a “dimmer switch” for regulating bodily functions ranging anywhere from appetite to pain and even memory. This research supported the notion of our own bodies having built-in cannabinoid pathways later classified as the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).
As medical research surrounding marijuana progresses, we’re learning more and more each day about just how vital this system is in our daily lives.
Yet the question remains unanswered – what is the endocannabinoid system, how is cannabis cannabis involved and how can I make sure it’s in good condition?
As science and medicine continue to explore the many applications of cannabis, perhaps it’s also about time we became more familiar with the very system that helps our body take care of itself.
What Is The Endocannabinoid System?
Our Endocannabinoid system is best understood as a set of major pathways weaving in and out of different parts of our body. These pathways are most densely packed around the central nervous & musculoskeletal systems, various organs and immunity centers of our anatomy.
The ECS expresses itself in our bodies as either:
Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that float around in our bodies. They seek to bind with cannabinoid receptors located at different sites of the body in response to metabolic reactions. Their specific structure, shape and biochemistry allow them to make this bind in a key-in-lock fashion.
The two primary endocannabinoids produced within our body are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG)
Cannabinoid receptors are specialised binding sites located in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. The two primary cannabinoid receptors lacing our nervous systems are Cannabinoid Receptor Type 1 (CB1), found more abundantly in the brain and Type 2 Cannabinoid Receptors (CB2) being mostly found in the periphery of the body such as our lungs, liver and kidney.
After a successful bond with a cannabinoid compound, receptors initiate signal firing to multiple neural pathways that regulate important body systems such as our rest and digestive systems.
As part of an enzyme complex
Enzymes are free floating proteins that accelerate the rate of important chemical reactions in our body. Endocannabinoids are constantly being synthesized and broken down by our body’s metabolic enzymes.
The ECS is under investigation by scientists and its full function is still largely unknown. Emerging research is finding a strong relationship between the ECS and the body’s homeostatic system.
Homeostasis is bodily force influencing our organs and tissues to work together to bring our bodies back to an optimal state in response to everyday changes in environment and conditions. Classic examples of body homeostasis include the opening of sweat glands to cool the skin when we feel too hot or quick involuntary muscle spasms (shivering) to heat our muscles and core temperature when cold.
What Does Cannabis Do To The ECS?
Plant and synthetic cannabis can be introduced to the body by smoking, ingestion and even topical application to the skin. Consuming cannabis via any method boosts our inner endocannabinoid pathways with higher concentrations of THC and CBD. The differences in concentration of THC and CBD in the plant or product will bring on different effects. A higher concentration of THC will bring more psychoactivity and neural activation. Cannabidiol concentrations introduced from outside the body are classified with the prefix phyto- from the Greek word for plant.
Introducing cannabis to the body has been found to have effects on:
Have you ever wondered what drives your feelings of hunger?
Low blood sugar levels in the stomach trigger a release of the hormone grehlin and raise it’s concentration in the body. Grehlin has the effect of releasing acids to attack the lining of the stomach walls and bring on those uneasy hunger pains.
Elevated levels of grehlin are quickly detected by our brain’s control system, the hypothalamus, stimulating the release of endocannabinoids to bind at receptors around the gastrointestinal tract, digestive muscles, stomach and pancreas.
Research has also shown that they play a selective role in taste and increases our appetite. The release of ghrelin and endocannabinoids work hand in hand to tell our bodies when it’s time to fuel up.
Whilst more research is needed, the findings show promise for those with eating disorders and appetite loss after cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.
Mood and memory
When we are stressed or frightened, the body releases a hormone called cortisol to increase energy availability and output for an appropriate response to deal with the stress.
However, maintaining a high-energy output is not ideal for our bodies which favors efficiency, over output. The hypothalamus, upon detecting higher levels of cortisol, will again instruct the release of free-floating endocannabinoids to promote energy re-uptake, storage and anti-inflammation.
When consuming cannabis, psychoactive THC molecules mix with other neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine to make us feel euphoric, creative and calm. However, introducing psychoactive THC molecules to our complex brain chemistry can also disrupt balance and impair higher order functioning including motor control, planning and decision-making.
Cannabinoids can also stimulate the brain’s ability to form new memories. Endocannabinoids have also been found to be capable of preventing the consolidation and retrieval of traumatic memories.
Whilst THC also has anti-inflammatory and analgesic (anti-pain) properties, it’s primary effect is the psychoactive “high” which can relax your body and ease your pain. Cannabinoids however, bring the analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties without the psycho-activity. Consequently, medical professionals are favouring CBD extracts over THC when considering applications to pain treatment and management.
The endocannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) has been demonstrated to reduce the firing of neurons in the spinal chord responsible for delivering pain sensations to the brain. Consuming CBD can increase the concentration of available cannabinoids in our system and boost it’s pain-suppressing effect. Scientists have theorized that Tylenol relieves pain through increasing endocannabinoid levels.
Research is finding promise in CBD’s treatment of chronic pain conditions such as arthritis and even cancer.
Other important functions
In addition to these roles listed above, endocannabinoids regulate body temperature, stress responses, sleep and exercise. They also play an important part in such basic functions as the birth and death of brain cells, the movement of the intestines and blood pressure regulation.
In fact, CB1 receptors are one of the most common receptors in the human body and participates in nearly every function of life.
How to Take Care of Your Endocannabinoid System
Now that we understand the responsibilities that the endocannabinoid plays in regulating our body, it’s equally important to understand how we can it support it through our lifestyle choices.
Like most bodily systems, the endocannabinoid system is largely influenced by exercise, sleeping and dietary habits.
Physical activity has already been proven to have a multitude of benefits to overall body function. Additionally, physical inactivity is strongly linked to cardiovascular diseases, obesity, the development of type II diabetes and many more states of ill health.
Emerging studies are highlighting the key role of exercise on boosting the generation and activation of endocannabinoids in active tissues. Regularly activating the ECS through appropriately intense exercise further promotes the body’s rest and digestive pathways as well as overall homeostatic function
A balanced diet has been well documented to play a key role in overall health. Furthermore, each individual’s dietary requirements are specific to our bodies and lifestyle. Dietary intake should always be guided by appropriate advice from health professionals and nutritionists.
Endocannabinoids are primarily synthesised within the body from fatty acids. Fortunately, fatty acids are recommended in a balanced diet and can therefore be available for our ECS to utilise.
Imbalanced diets with low fat may decrease the availability and readiness of fatty acids, decreasing the amount of endocannabinoids in our system and the effectiveness of digestion pathways.
Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids have been found to be particularly good sources of fats and also can boost overall brain health. Additionally, DHA and EPA fatty acids, found in salmon, tuna, seaweed as well as flax, chia and hemp seeds are high yielding sources of healthy fatty acids our body can break down for use by our endocannabinoid system.
Within our central nervous system, increased amounts of the endocannabinoid anandamide in regulating our sleep cycle and telling us when it’s time to sleep.
Anandamide primarily binds to CB1 receptors and is most abundant in the central nervous system at night. Adequate and consistent sleep helps our natural, circadian rhythm roll on normally. Elevating activation and signalling of CB1 receptors has been found to boost the natural hormonal pathways responsible for suppressing arousal and promoting rest.
Consequently, poor sleeping habits and sleep deprivation can disrupt the concentration of anandamide and CB1 expression to decrease the effectiveness of rest.
Cannabis use, whether it’s THC or CBD will have a have a major influence on your body’s endocannabinoid system.
Constant and repeat exposure to increased, unnatural amounts of endocannabinoids such as THC and CBD has been shown to overstimulate and desensitize our cannabinoid receptors. When a heavy user stops consuming cannabis, they may experience a range of endocannabinoid system dysfunctions including trouble sleeping, lack of appetite, irritability and loss of motivation as their body adapts to the sudden decrease in endocannabinoids.
Whether recreational or medicinal, cannabis use should always be a conscious decision and guided by a professional to ensure it is working in harmony with our endocannabinoid system.
Our Endocannabinoid System is an essential part of our bodies and play key roles in regulating our bodily systems and processes. It takes care of us when taking care of ourselves isn’t at the forefront of our minds.
Cannabis is great for providing a boost to our ECS, but a healthy diet, regular exercise and quality sleep are also vital in ensuring our ECS is running optimally!