What is the Endocannabinoid System?


CBD oil is fast becoming the health supplement of choice for promoting balanced health, much in part to its strengthening of the body’s endocannabinoid system. But what is the endocannabinoid system, how does CBD affect it, and why should we care?

These days most of us have a basic knowledge of how our bodies work. We know the importance of a maintaining a healthy immune system, what foods to include in our diet and which to avoid, and how to reduce stress through techniques such as yoga and meditation. But what if we told you that the majority of us, including doctors, are completely unaware of perhaps the most important system in our bodies, one that regulates all others and keeps us in balanced health?

Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System

It’s called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and was uncovered in the 1990s when scientists were trying to understand how the cannabis plant affects the body. They had chosen to study THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, suspecting that in order to bring about effects such as euphoria, changes in perception, and motor control, it must bind with some receptors in the body.

They found not only vast amounts of previously undiscovered receptors in the brain and central nervous system (CB1), but also another class of receptor (CB2) in the immune system, organs, and the gut.

However, this was still only part of the story. In general, receptors act like locks on our cells, waiting to be opened by a chemical key in order to bring about a biological response. Take for instance the neurotransmitter serotonin. We have several different types of serotonin receptors in our bodies, which when unlocked by serotonin, create chemical reactions that regulate our mood and anxiety levels.

In the same way, the researchers knew that just like THC, our bodies must produce some kind of cannabis-like chemicals fitting directly into the CB1 and CB2 receptors. And with the discovery of anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word for bliss, their suspicions were confirmed.

The team classified anandamide a type of ‘endocannabinoid’ - ‘endo’ meaning within and ‘cannabinoid’ referring to the special compounds in the cannabis plant. Soon after, a further endocannabinoid, 2-AG, was discovered, as well as enzymes involved in breaking the endocannabinoids down in the body.

But the question still remained; what was the purpose of these cannabis-like chemicals and receptors? The fact that endocannabinoids appeared to regulate the production of other neurotransmitters gave scientists a clue towards the governing principle of the ECS. This was done through retrograde signalling, whereby anandamide and 2-AG responded to activity in other cells by passing chemical messages backwards, jumping across the chemical synapse in a kind of regulatory feedback loop.

It seemed that the endocannabinoid system operated in a similar way to a conductor in an orchestra, maintaining balance between every other biological systems, ensuring that no one section out plays the other.  As such, it has been termed a homeostatic regulator, and is involved in every key physiological function including sleep, appetite, mood, pain perception, the immune system, reproduction, motor control, and memory.

Not only that, scientists have observed increased endocannabinoid signalling in many health conditions such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and depression. However, it still remains unclear whether this is the body’s way of restoring balance to a diseased state, or if indeed the excess ECS activity is the cause of the health problem in the first place.

What is beyond any doubt is that taking care of the ECS is as important to our overall health as looking after our immune system, or indeed any other system in our body. Going back to the orchestra analogy, what would happen if the conductor downed their baton mid concerto and left the musicians to their own devices. Chaos would undoubtedly unfold, and the same principal can be applied to the ECS.

Endocannabinoid Deficiency

Measuring ECS function isn’t a simple task. Once the endocannabinoids have performed their function, they are broken down and reabsorbed into the body. However, we do know that modern living - high stress levels, eating junk food, excessive alcohol, and reduced sleep, all negatively impact our endocannabinoid system.

In fact, a collection of health conditions sharing an oversensitivity to pain, exhaustion, depression and anxiety, are thought to be caused by endocannabinoid deficiency. We’re talking here migraines, IBS, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia, all of which have showed some kind of reduced endocannabinoid signalling.

The American neurologist and cannabinoid researcher, Ethan Russo, was the first to highlight a lack of ‘endocannabinoid tone’ in all these conditions. He went on to recommend supplementing the body with phytocannabinoids, i.e. cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, as a way to boost the ECS. As an aside, it is interesting to note that all the conditions associated with endocannabinoid deficiency do indeed respond well to treatment with compounds in the cannabis plant.

CBD and the Endocannabinoid System

Unfortunately, few of us live in a place where we can access medical cannabis for suspected endocannabinoid deficiency. Thankfully though, most of us can buy CBD oil as a nutritional supplement, which according to Ethan Russo, has a similar buffer effect to the endocannabinoid system.

We also know the molecule CBD (cannabidiol) has a direct impact on anandamide levels in the body. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t bind with either of the endocannabinoid receptors. However, it does block fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), the enzyme responsible for breaking anandamide down in the body. This means that by introducing CBD, anandamide gets to hang out in our bodies for longer doing its mood-boosting, anti-inflammatory good work, which can only be good news for our ECS and overall health.

How To Look After Your Endocannabinoid System

Five years ago, if you’d asked anyone about the ECS, you would have almost certainly drawn blank looks, even from those in the medical profession. Unfortunately, due to the nature of how the ECS was discovered and its link to the cannabis plant, most medical schools barely touch upon it when training future doctors. Sadly, this lack of ECS knowledge means that when it comes to our health, an important piece of the puzzle has been consistently ignored.

The good news is that in the same way that cannabis is slowly throwing off the shackles of prohibition, the endocannabinoid system is also starting to take centre stage. Right now, the ECS is the subject of an increasing number of scientific studies aimed at developing pharmaceutical drugs of the future, including some that block the enzyme FAAH in the exact same manner as CBD.

In the meantime, we ourselves can take proactive steps towards give our ECS the tender loving care it deserves.

It goes without saying that supplementing our diets with CBD oil is a great way to start, but did you know that running or indeed any cardiovascular activity boosts anandamide levels? A balanced diet, containing plenty of healthy fats with the right balance of Omega 3 and 6, also gives our bodies the right building blocks to create endocannabinoids. In fact, all those wholesome habits we know are good for us like reducing alcohol intake and getting more sleep, help to maintain a optimised endocannabinoid system.

So, while doctors might be playing catch up when it comes to the endocannabinoid system, we, the patients, can be ahead of the game by ignoring our ECS no longer. It’s not rocket science; by eating well, moving our bodies, getting enough rest, and topping up our endocannabinoid levels with CBD oil, we can give our ECS the best chance of keeping us well and happy.