Your Endocannabinoid System: A Beginner's Guide
Much of the research exploring the potential benefits of Cannabidiol (or CBD) within the body focus on its interaction with the Endocannabinoid System. What exactly is the ECS? Essentially, it is a network of receptors working in tandem with other systems in the body to regulate a host of physiological functions. It’s vital for maintaining the body’s homeostasis, the state of healthy balance.
It might seem strange to have an internal system with the term “cannabinoid” involved, but the name simply reflects its similarity to the effects of certain cannabis compounds. Cannabinoids were discovered before the system was fully understood, so when scientists learned that the body produced compounds similar to cannabinoids, they dubbed them “endocannabinoids,” (eCBs) cannabis-like substances produced naturally within our body.
The Endocannabinoid System is made up of receptors that bond with the eCBs to regulate a variety of functions, from appetite to immunity. As of now, research has identified two types of receptors: CB1, primarily found in the brain but also in the lungs, liver, and kidneys; and CB2, found primarily in the immune system with a large concentration in the spleen and gastrointestinal tract.
The ECS promotes homeostasis by triggering these eCBs wherever there may be an imbalance. When the endocannabinoids have restored order, the ESC dispatches enzymes to dissolve the substances before they overcompensate.
Of course, this system operates on a delicate balance, and there are a number of factors that can throw the ECS off-course.
“Researchers are starting to make the connection with many if not most diseases to a suboptimal ECS,” says Certified Natural Health Practitioner Jenny Golden. “These ties have shown that the majority of diseases have this underlying fact: the ECS is not functioning properly. We can surmise from this that it is very common for many people.”
Some threats to our internal balance are hard to avoid. Stress from work, family, and all of life’s daily demands can weigh heavily on our equilibrium. “Increased stress overstimulates CB1 receptors in the brain, and it then has to compensate by lowering the CB1 receptors there,” says Golden. “The eCBs normally provide emotional balance to the brain, so with fewer of these receptors, emotional balance becomes more difficult.”
In the U.S., our diets often play a detrimental role in maintaining optimal health, and poor nutrition can work against our own appetite and digestive capabilities. “The eCBs control appetite, so when there is an increase in these receptors in the gut, people find themselves hungrier for quick fixes like sugars, fats, and breads,” says Golden. “Fat cells produce more eCBs, which make it harder to lose weight because of increased hunger.”
Golden notes that substance abuse can also wreak havoc on our body’s ability to self-regulate. “There is a significant drop in CB1 receptors when alcohol use is stopped, and does not return to normal for several weeks,” she says. “This could also be the reason why some drugs and alcohol become very addicting.”
In some cases, it may be a simple matter of genetics. Around 20 percent of the U.S. population has a genetic mutation that naturally degrades anandamide, the “bliss molecule.” “These people end up with a higher percentage of anandamide in their blood, which causes a reduced response to stress, which is a good thing,” says Golden. “However, the people that have this genetic mutation can also be at risk for obesity.”
Research is ongoing to better understand the relationship between a suboptimal Endocannabinoid System and disease. Preliminary investigation suggests that an ECS imbalance may cause some disease, while other diseases may disturb the ECS.
Even as we await that verdict, Golden warns that widespread issues already cause notable harm to our physiology. “Most Americans also have poor diets and an overly stressful lifestyle,” she says, “which–even in the absence of disease–leads to an under-functioning ECS.”
Because it is integrated with so many physiological functions, an ailing ECS might manifest in a wide range of symptoms. While medications may address the symptoms themselves, it may take rebalancing the ECS to truly resolve the underlying issue.
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