The endocannabinoid system is so little known within the wider world, that odds are you’ve never even heard of it. Even in the 21st century, when most people have at least a passing familiarity with the human body and its various functions, you’d be hard pressed to find a layman who would be able to tell you about this enigmatic yet essential system.
Simply put: without an endocannabinoid system (often abbreviated to “ECS”), your life would be simply impossible. It regulates, among other things: emotional processing, memory, learning, sleep, temperature regulation, food consumption, inflammatory and immune reactions, and pain control. Because of its massive importance to how our bodies work, it has recently become the focus of renewed medical research.
What Is The Endocannabinoid System?
The ECS is a sprawling network of cellular receptors and chemical signals that is found throughout the body. Cannabinoid receptors are particularly numerous throughout the brain – outnumbering, in fact, most of the other receptors found there. They police the activity of many neurotransmitters, providing immediate feedback in order to regulate such things as alertness, temperature, and hunger levels.
At a basic level, there are three components to the ECS: endocannabinoids, enzymes, and receptors.
Also called “endogenous cannabinoids”, they are similar to (exogenous) cannabinoids in such things as cannabis, but with one major difference – they’re made within your body.
There are two endocannabinoids that have thus far been identified. These are anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG). Both help to regulate internal functions and they’re produced as needed, which makes it difficult to establish a baseline level for either one.
Enzymes break down endocannabinoids once they’ve served their purpose. Each endocannabinoid has a corresponding enzyme that’s responsible for breaking it down: fatty acid amide hydrolase (which breaks down AEA) and monoacylglycerol acid lipase (which breaks down 2-AG).
Found throughout your body, these receptors are what endocannabinoids bind to in order to spur the ECS into action. The most important two cannabinoid receptors are:
- CB1 receptors, found largely in the central nervous system;
- CB2 receptors, found mainly in immune cells and other parts of the peripheral nervous system.
CB1 and CB2 receptors in the ECS can be bound to either endocannabinoid. The effects can therefore vary – not simply by which endocannabinoid binds to which receptor, but by the receptor’s location within the body. One endocannabinoid might bind to a cannabinoid receptor in the spine in order to induce pain relief; another might incite an inflammatory response in immune cells.
How The Body Produces Cannabinoids For The ECS
The body produces endocannabinoids in a multitude of organs and tissue – they can originate from the brain, adipose (fat) tissue, muscle, circulating cells, and several organs.
They are synthesized on demand, which contributes to the difficulty in measuring them or establishing what is a ‘typical’ amount of endocannabinoids to have in one’s system at any given moment.
Phytocannabinoids And The Endocannabinoid System
While the body natively produces cannabinoids (hence ‘endocannabinoids’), there are some exogenous cannabinoids of note. The two most well-known are found within the cannabis plant, making then phytocannabinoids (‘phyto’ meaning ‘plant’).
The two cannabinoids found in cannabis are cannabinoid (CBD) oil and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
CBD Oil And The Endocannabinoid System
CBD oil is one of two major phytocannabinoids found in cannabis. A lot more of it is found in hemp than in marijuana.
It’s not entirely clear how CBD oil interacts with the endocannabinoid system. However, research has shown that it doesn’t bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors in the ECS in the same way that THC does. It’s been theorized that CBD works by preventing the breakdown of endocannabinoids, or that it binds to an as-yet-undiscovered cannabinoid receptor.
Role Of THC In The Endocannabinoid System
THC is the other phytocannabinoid occurring in cannabis. THC is the cannabinoid responsible for user intoxication; much more of it is found in marijuana than in hemp.
This powerful compound is able to bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors in the ECS. Because of this, it can produce a range of effects on your body – some positive and some negative. So while it may help with pain relief and appetite stimulation, it can also lead to anxiety and paranoia.
Because of THC’s undoubted positive effects, scientists are working to synthesize a variant that produces only those effects while eliminating the less pleasant ones.
Benefits Of An Activated Endocannabinoid System
Research is still ongoing into the many benefits that might arise as a result of an activated endocannabinoid system. However, it is currently known that a sufficiently stimulated ECS is immensely beneficial to:
- pain relief
- chemotherapy-induced nausea
- sleep regulation
- Muscle tightness of the kind found in multiple-sclerosis (MS) patients
It’s highly likely that research will uncover further health benefits of supporting your ECS, and so it’s very much worth watching this space.
Naturally Boosting Your Endocannabinoid System
There are a great many ways of bolstering your endocannabinoid system that don’t involve cannabis consumption. These include:
- Exposure to cold temperatures (e.g. cold plunge pools, cold showers etc.)
- Coffee consumption (in moderation)
- Hormone Replacement Therapy (for those with clinically low levels of sex hormones only)
- CBD oil
- Black and green tea
- Probiotic consumption
- Kava root (indigenous to West Pacific islands)
- Flavonoids (found in chocolate, grains, bark, wine, flowers, stems and roots) • Regular exercise
- Omega-3 fatty acids
While research has shed some light upon the mysterious endocannabinoid system and its function within the human body, there is still much more to be learned. What is known is that it is a massively important system, and one that we should try to stimulate as much as possible in order to maximize wellness and good health.
As we saw in the previous section, there are many ways to do this without the consumption of hemp or marijuana. It’s perfectly possible to make changes in your diet and daily routine in order to give your ECS the boost it needs to make you feel healthier.
You don’t need, then, to wait for science to bring the answers to your doorstep – start making those changes today for an activated ECS and a healthier body.