Let me ask you a cringe-worthy question, have you heard of CBD?
Of course you have. (CBD already has its own pyramid schemes, for crying out loud.) You’ve probably also heard of THC, three letters cherished for the compound's sometimes-euphoric effects. And you might even know that CBD and THC are both cannabinoids, active compounds of the cannabis plant, and that there are many many others.
But did you know that your body makes its own versions of cannabinoids?
True story. They’re called endocannabinoids, and they’ve got a big responsibility. Later, we'll get into how to get these endocannabinoids functioning at their best, but let's first explore the system that they’re a part of.
The Endocannabinoid System is what Makes Cannabis so Powerful
There’s a network of receptors located throughout your body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and it’s how the cannabinoids in cannabis work their magic. This crucial system was discovered back in 1988; but, in large part due to the illegality and stigma surrounding cannabis, it’s tragically understudied and hardly covered in medical school.
The cannabinoids in cannabis (technically and more specifically called phytocannabinoids) interact with receptors all over the ECS, causing various effects in the system they are located within — and they’re located everywhere.
Civilized spoke with self-described ‘cannabinoidologist’ Tamás Bíró MD, PhD, DSc, Professor, Director General of the Hungarian Center of Excellence for Molecular Medicine and Director of Applied Research, Phytecs, Inc. who explained, “The ECS is a central player in maintaining and controlling the homeostasis of the human body. As of today, we know that the ECS is functionally active in all organs of the body and controls most of its physiological processes.”
You read that right, the ECS is active in all organs of the body and controls most of the processes that keep us alive and functioning. That includes sleep, appetite, mood, inflammation, and so on. The endocannabinoid system's global presence in the body is how cannabinoids, like the now-ubiquitous CBD, are able to help treat all kinds of ailments.
But We Also Make Endocannabinoids
It might seem like our bodies were made for weed, but it’s not quite a stoner fantasy of that level. (Still pretty cool, though.) Our bodies create compounds called endocannabinoids — the prefix endo- being short for endogenous — that also interact with the ECS, helping to promote its healthy function throughout the body.
Though several more have been discovered, most current research revolves around two main endocannabinoids. Anandamide was the first to be discovered, named after the Sanskrit word for bliss. The second main endocannabinoid is 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), whose moniker may not have a charming origin, but has been scientifically linked to feelings of bliss, as well. 2-AG’s plasma levels have also been found to increase after orgasm in both men and women.
A more well-known byproduct of elevated endocannabinoid levels is the phenomenon of peaceful euphoria often experienced by athletes during intense exercise. As explained to us by Nicholas V. DiPatrizio, Ph.D. at the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine, “Levels of endocannabinoids are elevated in blood during running, which may contribute — at least in part — to the ‘runner’s high.’”
When Endocannabinoids Can’t do Their Thing, Trouble Arises
The ECS helps promote health throughout the body by encouraging balance in its various functions. Much like we prefer not to be too hot or too cold, the systems in our bodies have “Goldilocks zones” where they perform best. The endocannabinoids and receptors that make up the ECS help adjust functions so they are just right.
And when this system isn’t able to its job, health can go very awry. As Dr. Bíró puts it, “For the body to stay healthy, it requires a healthy ECS. However, like all equations, ‘healthy ECS = healthy body’ is also valid from the other direction.” A consequence of an unhealthy ECS would be that the system cannot regulate homeostasis," said, "which in turn impairs key physiological functions.”
Since the ECS is located so globally throughout our bodies, this means a wide range of possible malfunction. Research is still very limited, but ECS malfunction has been connected with migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory and neurological conditions, as well as a variety of treatment-resistant diseases.
So, if you want to get a healthy body — you need to get a healthy ECS.
What Can I do to Improve my ECS Health?
Maintain Balance: It makes sense that practicing harmony in one’s lifestyle is the way to keep this system of balance in order. “The most important thing you can do to keep the ECS healthy is to avoid the extremes," said Dr. Biró. "To name a few examples: Avoid extreme and chronic stress, avoid being overweight, control alcohol consumption, and try to curtail dependencies, in general.”
...Even When it Comes to Cannabis: Dr. Bíró also notes that while overconsumption of non-endogenous cannabinoids (like those in cannabis) can lead to ECS dysfunction, conversely they can also be used to treat the symptoms that ECS dysfunction causes. “One can use carefully selected and properly dosed cannabinoids to substitute for endocannabinoids if their production levels are low," he said. This means that if your body isn’t producing its own endocannabinoids, then cannabis can be used to treat the problem. (Though, the symptoms will recur once it wears off and levels are low again, so this is a fairly high-maintenance solution.)
There isn’t nearly enough information out there, nor studies funded, on how cannabis use affects the ECS; but Bíró also noted that some cannabinoid ratios were more beneficial than others. This helps explain discrepancy among pertinent studies, as well as draws importance to the use of multiple cannabinoids (not just, say, CBD). Try seeking out others, like THCa, another non-intoxicating option that can be found in raw cannabis, as well as in dispensaries.
Eat Right and Get Moving: Civilized also spoke with Ethan Russo, MD of the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, who shared that "lifestyle approaches can be integral to fostering a healthy ECS." These approaches, he said, include "regular aerobic exercise and following an anti-inflammatory diet, such as a Mediterranean diet, with emphasis on olive oil, fish, seeds, and nuts." He suggested adding pro- and prebiotics, both ways of improving gut health. He also added that “sedentary behavior is harmful to the ECS, as are foods that are pro-inflammatory, such as fried foods with trans-fats, or too many calories in general.”
To Feel Good, Do Right by Your ECS
The ECS not only makes cannabis so powerful, it’s the system responsible for keeping all the other systems in line and properly functioning. From pain regulation, to fertility, the ability to think straight, and the wide world in between, it plays a huge role in your health, even if your doctor isn’t yet privy to its significance.
“Boosting endocannabinoid tone offers many advantages, by balancing neurotransmitter function in the brain, regulating digestion, and positively influencing overall homeostasis in virtually every physiological system of the body,” said Dr. Russo. He also noted how personal advocacy is important: "People should be encouraged to educate themselves and their doctors on the role of the endocannabinoid system in overall health and its maintenance.”
So if you’re feeling off, consider how balanced your approaches to activities and wellness are; maybe your ECS needs a little TLC. And while you’re restoring balance, a bit of THC, CBD, CBN, or any of the many other cannabinoids out there – just might ease the journey.