Did you know your body has an endocannabinoid system? A year ago I didn’t either.
I’m no doctor, but I thought I was familiar with the key biological systems in the body. Turns out though, I was wrong. That’s because unless you’re a research scientist or work in the field of medical cannabis, it’s unlikely you’ll ever have been told about the endocannabinoid system. And yet, it has been hailed as “the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”
Why do so few people know about the endocannabinoid system?
So what’s the big mystery? Well, it might have something to do with how the endocannabinoid system (ECS) was discovered. Back in the 1990s scientists were trying to understand how THC, the psychoactive substance in the cannabis plant, elicits its effect on the body. What they uncovered was a complex network of receptors (CB1) in the brain and central nervous system that were a perfect fit for the THC molecule.
Soon after another type of receptor (CB2) was discovered in the immune system, gut and many of the body’s major organs. But that was only part of the puzzle. The hunt was on to find out whether the body produced its own cannabis-like chemicals, and with the identification of the first endocannabinoid Anandamide, they had their answer.
What does the endocannabinoid system do?
What scientists have realised is that the endocannabinoid system fine-tunes most of our vital physiological functions, bringing balance to everything from sleep, appetite, pain, inflammation, memory, mood and even reproduction. So in basic terms, it’s like a conductor of an orchestra, ensuring that no one section is drowning out the other, with the end result a perfectly harmonised symphony between body and mind.
Sounds like pretty important work, right? Well, you’d be right. That’s why it’s vital that the ECS becomes as much part of everyday parlance as the immune system. So to get the ball rolling, here are 8 fascinating facts about the totally awesome endocannabinoid system.
1. Humans aren’t alone in having an ECS
As humans beings we’re not special for having an ECS. Not only is the endocannabinoid system found in all vertebrates, but scientists also discovered cannabinoid receptors in non-vertebrate sea-squirts, suggesting an evolutionary process dating back 600 million years ago.
2. CB1 receptors are the most abundant neurotransmitter receptors in the brain
Most of us have heard of neurotransmitters – they’re the chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and body. Serotonin and dopamine are perhaps the most well known examples, but it’s the endocannabinoid Anandamide, also classed as a neurotransmitter, that has the most receptors in the brain.
3. Endocannabinoids signal backwards
Most neurotransmitters communicate in one direction: from the signaling neuron to the postsynoptic neuron. But in the endocannabinoid system, it works in the opposite direction, which is called retrograde signaling. This means that if a receptor is being over- or under-stimulated, it signals backwards across the synapse telling the signaling neuron to change its behaviour, creating a kind of feedback loop. So in effect, rather than distributing information like other neurotransmitters, it acts like a kind of dimmer switch, turning activity up or down in order to return the body to homeostasis.
4. Increased endocannabinoid system activity has been noted in many diseases
As the endocannabinoid system’s modus operandi is to bring balance to the body, it’s no surprise then that scientists have observed elevated ECS activity in a number of illnesses. Everything from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to rheumatoid arthritis and cancer, have shown changes in endocannabinoid levels and greater receptor expression. The conclusion that has been most widely reached is that this increased activity denotes the ECS trying to fulfil its role of returning the body to equilibrium again.
5. ‘Endocannabinoid System Deficiency’ may be a cause of some illnesses
But what happens if the ECS becomes depleted? Scientists have observed how in certain conditions associated with oversensitivity to pain such as migraines, fibromyalgia and IBS, the ECS appears to have become weakened. The theory is known as Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency, with the corollary being that by supplementing the body with compounds from the cannabis plant, this deficiency can be corrected and the symptoms improved.