Almost everyone knows about the 11 major systems of the body that control everything from circulation to digestion to immunity. But a recently discovered system that is arguably one of the most important systems in maintaining wellness doesn’t even get the attention it deserves: a survey showed that only 13% of US medical schools teach their students about it. The system in question is the endocannabinoid system or ECS.
The Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System
The ECS was discovered in the late 1980s. But in order to understand how it was discovered, you first need to understand how neurotransmitters work.
The simplest analogy for them is a lock and key: neurotransmitters are the ‘keys’ that fit perfectly into certain receptors or ‘locks’. When this happens, it triggers a reaction in the body.
You’ve probably heard of dopamine, the feel-good chemical that’s linked to the brain’s reward system. Dopamine is produced within the body, but a lot of drugs can mimic it too (think counterfeit keys). When dopamine – or a chemical that’s mimicking it – interacts with a dopamine receptor, it causes a reaction that creates that good feeling.
Now that that’s clear, back to history: in the late 80s, scientists researching cannabis found that it contains compounds called cannabinoids. They wanted to find out how cannabinoids create the psychoactive effects that they do. A study found that our brains also have receptor ‘locks’ for these cannabinoids – their ‘keys’.
These receptors were dubbed cannabinoid receptors, and amazingly, turned out to be the most abundant type of neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. This revelation set the ball rolling on more findings: in a few years, researchers had found that the body actually produces its own chemicals that are similar in structure to those in cannabis.
They called these neurotransmitters ‘endocannabinoids’: a mixture of the word endogenous (which means that it is produced naturally inside the body) and cannabinoids. Since then, a handful of endocannabinoids have been discovered and named.
The compounds in the cannabis plant that fit into our cannabinoid receptors were dubbed ‘phytocannabinoids’.
What does it do, anyway?
Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found all over the body: in the brain, organs, tissues, glands and more. But what do they do in these places? The goal is always the same: homeostasis. For those unfamiliar with homeostasis, it is essentially a state of balance in the body.
Our bodies are like Goldilocks, constantly striving towards keeping our systems in the perfect ‘sweet spot’: balanced temperature, balanced nutrients, balanced fluids. And one of the primary mechanisms that the body uses to achieve homeostasis is the endocannabinoid system.
So far, studies have linked the endocannabinoid system to the following processes:
- Immune function
- Temperature regulation
The endocannabinoid system is able to work in targeted ways, which means that if your body temperature is rising, the ECS is able to bring balance to that without messing with your digestive system, for example. Once your endocannabinoids have done their job, the body goes ahead and breaks them down.
The incredible thing about endocannabinoids is that because they’re in so many places at the same time, they can make different cell types interact and coordinate with each other. Here’s a simple example: when you’re injured, cannabinoids first try and lower the amount of ‘yelling’ from the injured tissue, so to speak. They also calm nerve cells down so they aren’t sending large amounts of pain signals to the brain. Lastly, they relax nearby immune cells to control inflammation. 3 different types of actions on 3 different types of cells for one purpose: to calm everything down.
People whose endocannabinoid systems are off balance may be afflicted by illnesses that typically involve more than one organ system, which makes sense considering that the ECS is pretty much everywhere. For example, fibromyalgia which has been linked to an endocannabinoid deficiency, involves the nervous system, the endocrine system, the digestive system and more. Pain, poor memory and temperature sensitivity are common symptoms.
Cannabinoids and endocannabinoids can protect neurons in the brain, enhancing memory. They can also enhance neural plasticity and learning: quite literally, expanding the mind and imagination. A balanced endocannabinoid system could lead to a truly balanced body and soul.
One of the primary endocannabinoids discovered is called anandamide, derived from ‘ananda’, the Sanskrit word for ‘bliss’. It’s been called the bliss molecule and the body’s own antidepressant. Does it do enough to earn that title? Turns out, it does a lot more!
- Anandamide produces a state of heightened happiness – hence the name. In fact, the ‘runner’s high’ commonly attributed to endorphins might actually be because of an increased production of anandamide during physical activity.
- It is produced in areas of the brain related to memory, movement control and higher thought processes.
- Like other endocannabinoids, it plays an important role in appetite and pain.
- Perhaps the most impressive quality of anandamide is that it aids in the production of new nerve cells, which makes it effective against anxiety and depression.
You’re probably wondering why we don’t all live in a constant state of bliss with anandamide in our brains, and that’s because our bodies break it down very quickly. In fact, studies have found that certain countries that rank higher in terms of their citizens’ happiness all share the same genetic mutation: they produce lower amounts of the enzyme that breaks down anandamide (FAAH), helping it stay in the brain longer.
How to balance your ECS:
Since we weren’t all born with genetic mutations, what can we do to maintain a healthy endocannabinoid system?
Exercise: Levels of anandamide increase after 30 minutes of exercise, and researchers believe that like endorphins, anandamide is a neurobiological reward – your body saying, ‘hey, thanks for keeping me healthy!
Taking CBD: CBD or cannabidiol is a compound found in cannabis that has no psychoactive effects (so it can’t get you high). Remember FAAH, the enzyme that breaks down anandamide? One of the known functions of CBD is that it prevents that FAAH from doing so, making sure the anandamide can have more of an impact. This makes taking CBD one of the most effective ways to balance the endocannabinoid system, especially for those with genuine deficiencies. Many people find CBD drops or CBD vape oil to be the easiest & most effective ways to consume it daily. People also apply CBD balm directly to their skin.
Other dietary additions: dark chocolate, truffles, apples, grapes, broccoli, potatoes and onions have all been found (in smaller studies) to promote a healthy endocannabinoid tone.
Even though new studies about the endocannabinoid system are frequently being published, researchers are only just scratching the surface of the numerous things that this system could potentially accomplish. The more we discover about this powerful system, the closer we can get to reaching that body, mind and soul ‘sweet spot’.