Is the endocannabinoid system (ECS) a real thing? Absolutely. Though cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabis are relative newcomers as a means to support the ECS, humans are born with an ECS biological system. And, despite its newly found status, the ECS is and has always been an essential factor in multiple biological functions in health and disease.
Why haven’t you heard about it until now? Because of limitations placed on the study of cannabis, research was also limited on the ECS. That is all changing.
Let’s first look at the ECS’s role in homeostasis, which is the body’s innate ability to self-regulate pathways and processes like blood oxygen, blood glucose, arterial blood pressure, arterial blood pressure, water volume and sodium concentration. As you might imagine all of these processes are essential for life. And, without the ECS, many of our essential physiological functions and signaling pathways that support homeostasis would not function. The ECS is involved in appetite, memories, moods, pain, fertility and reproduction.
What makes the ECS unique is that it is multi-dimensional. Though we still don’t understand everything there is to know about it, the ECS is a master regulator in the body, meaning that its lipids (fats) are essential to certain vital neurotransmission processes. Without the ECS, our cells energy source, the mitochondria, would not work properly. The ECS is the mitochondria’s regulator of “energy homeostasis,” says Michelle Sexton ND, Assistant Adjunct Professor in the Department of Anesthesia at the University of California in San Diego, who researches the role of cannabinoids in clinical medicine.
What are Cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are beneficial compounds found in the cannabis and the hemp plant. But that is not all, they are also other plants like black pepper, black truffles, broccoli, cacao, carrots, clove, echinacea and ginseng. Scientists are only just beginning to explore cannabinoids, but they have evidence showing that hemp, black pepper and clove may induce relaxing properties without the psychoactive effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis (marijuana).
|Plant or Compound||Definition||Legal Status|
|Hemp||“The plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis”||Hemp is legal to sell as a dietary supplement in all states as long as hemp material is below .03 percent THC. The purchase of hemp grown outside the US was previously legal prior to 2018 Farm bill which made it legal to grow Hemp in the US if grower is licensed.|
|Marijuana||“The plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin.”||Legal status varies from state to state for recreational and medicinal use.|
|Cannabidiol (CBD)||Phytocannabinoids derived from Cannabis species”||“The FDA has approved only one CBD product, a prescription drug product to treat two rare, severe forms of epilepsy. It is currently illegal to market CBD by adding it to a food or labeling it as a dietary supplement.”|
Source: Defining Hemp: A Fact Sheet, Congressional Research Service
The body is teeming with cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids and enzymes for cannabinoid metabolism, which all support the ECS. They have a wide scope of influence and are located anywhere from immune cells to neurons.
- Endocannabinoids, also called endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules made by your body. They’re similar to cannabinoids in foods, but they’re produced by your body. The body produces two key endocannabinoids, anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG) and each has a role within the central nervous system (CNS). They assist in neuromodulation, neuroprotection, tempering anxiety, and enhancing memory and learning.Endocannabinoids also have functions beyond the CNS, including the immune system where they interact with the cannabinoid receptors.
- Cannabinoid receptors include cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2), which are located throughout the body.CB1 is known to be a psychoactive, neuromodulator and a pain receptor found in the brain, fat, liver, skeletal, and muscular tissues. CB2 is responsible for the anti-inflammatory functions located in cells that are responsible for immune function and may also be found in the CNS. “CB2 also plays a strong role in immune function. But interestingly CB1 is also expressed on immune cells, so they’re both important but delineated in specific roles,” says Dr. Sexton.
Enzymes are also important to endocannabinoids when they finalize their functions. When they are finished, they need to be “broken down.” This is done by two main enzymes: fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) that breaks down AEA and monoacylglycerol acid lipase (MGL) that breaks down 2-AG.10
Supporting the Endocannabinoid System
Can you have an endocannabinoid deficiency? Emerging literature shows that the etiology of migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, mood disorders among other conditions may be connected to a dysfunctional ECS. However, this does not mean that a person can self-diagnose themselves, nor should they self-medicate with cannabis or hemp.
Studies in genetics show that not everyone responds the same way to cannabis with THC or hemp-derived CBD products. Each person is unique. You may be incredibly sleepy and unable to function throughout the day, while another person may have a completely different reaction to cannabis-THC products.
Dr. Sexton evaluates the person on many levels including measuring inflammation, immunity, stress hormones and other systemic processes since there is currently no clinical ECS testing. When Dr. Sexton evaluates a person’s ECS, she uses the guiding hallmarks as defined by Dr. Vincenzo Di Marzo, Research Director at the Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry of the National Research Council (ICB-CNR) in Pozzuoli, Naples. They include assessing the person to see how well the endocannabinoid system is helping the body to eat, sleep, relax, sleep, protect and even forget. The latter is a surprising new finding, as the endocannabinoid system is involved in memory processing, including memory updating and forgetting.
She recommends healthy lifestyle choices that support the ECS, such as engaging in regular exercise, consuming a balanced diet, including Omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy vegetable fats. She warns that cannabis can be incorporated into this approach but that it isn’t a magic bullet. A healthy lifestyle is vital and should come first. In short, we all have an ECS. Whether you use cannabis or CBD products, your ECS needs the right nutrients, exercise and rest to function properly.
Sara Le Brun-Blashka, MS is the Director of Clinical Nutrition and Education at Standard Process, where she led the team to launch the educational website, WholisticMatters.com. She has led many innovative product launches throughout her career in functional nutrition, including hemp products, medical foods, probiotics, and resolvins. Sara is a nutritionist with a Master’s in Nutrition Education at American University and a bachelor of science in dietetics and food science. She is passionate about community-supported agriculture, local Milwaukee Charities, and her family.
This article is sponsored by the Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, partnered with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing health care systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following initiatives:
- Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine
- Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
- Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine
INM's team is made up of naturopathic doctors and health journalists.