Did you know there is a system in your body that is responsible for a large number of functions, from sleeping, to pain management, mood, and everything in between? This amazing and complex biochemical system is present in all animal life, it is called the endocannabinoid system.
You may have never heard of this system, and that is because the ECS was not discovered by scientists until the early 1990s. Since then a vast amount of research has been published on its role in maintaining homeostasis in the body – in other words, helping keep us in perfect balance. Homeostasis refers to your body’s effort to keep your internal system optimal and stable, no matter what is going on in your external environment1. When something is operating outside of the optimal range, your body activates the ECS to help correct the imbalance2.
The human body contains cannabinoid receptors, endogenous cannabinoids produced naturally inside of the body (endocannabinoids), and enzymes responsible for both the creation and breakdown of these endocannabinoids. Cannabinoid receptors are located throughout the body and are believed to be the most highly concentrated of all the receptors in the bodily system3. Let that sink in for a little while! Again, this system was only discovered in the early 1990s.
The most abundant of the cannabinoid receptors are the CB1 and CB2 receptors4. These receptors can be activated by both cannabinoids that are found in the body (endocannabinoids), and those we ingest from plant-derived cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids). A few examples of these phytocannabinoids are: anandamide found in dark chocolate, limonene found in most citrus fruits, or pinene found in rosemary. Additional phytocannabinoids to note are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) which are both found in the cannabis plant.
THC is an active compound found in the cannabis plant that is responsible for the plant’s psychoactive effects. CBD is another active compound found in cannabis and though it has a similar molecular structure to THC, it is not psychoactive. Both THC and CBD are very similar to the endocannabinoids produced in our own bodies, which allows them to interact with our cannabinoid receptors. More information on the plant-derived cannabinoids will be discussed in Part II of this blog coming soon!
What does it do?
The ECS plays a key role in eating, relaxing, sleeping, pain management, memory, and protecting us from internal and environmental insults1. It is necessary for central nervous system development and synaptic plasticity3. Synaptic plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change and adapt to new information, controlling how effectively nerve cells in the brain can communicate with one another, which in turn has an effect on our ability to form memories.
When an imbalance is detected in the body the ECS naturally synthesizes cannabinoids to interact with cannabinoid receptors which in turn stimulate a chemical response in the body to correct the imbalance. It is the cannabinoids that allow for this communication and coordination between different cell types in our body systems.
For example when exposed to stress, your body reduces levels of anandamide, a “feel good” cannabinoid that can also trigger feelings of overstimulation and agitation, leading to anxiety. It then increases levels of the cannabinoid 2-AG which dampens perception of pain and activates memory to aid you in escaping the situation and avoiding it in the future. Here is another example of how the ECS works to maintain balance in the body:
“A fracture in the toe would result in cell death. The resulting lymphatic response would increase blood flow and the migration of white blood cells to the surrounding areas. The ECS would then recognize the excess lymphatic signals, and after deciding that there is no longer a need for the increase of inflammation, the cannabinoid receptors in the surrounding immune cells and tissues will begin to bind with cannabinoids and start to slowly reduce these inflammatory responses.” 8
Through the cannabinoid receptors, the ECS regulates many important bodily functions, including the following:
- Immune function
- Bone and muscle health
- Energy balance
- Brain plasticity
- Mood (specifically stress and emotions)
- Motor control
- Temperature regulation
Your body activates the ECS with specificity and precision, so that only the area that is out of balance is impacted. Once the endocannabinoids have brought things back into balance, enzymes come along to break them down and prevent them from going too far and altering the balance in the opposite direction. With complex actions in our nervous system, immune system, and all of the body’s organs, the ECS is quite literally a bridge between body and mind2.
What happens if the ECS is not functioning properly?
As you can see, the ECS is an important physiological system, involved in a number of processes in the human body. A functional cannabinoid system is essential for maintaining good health. Endocannabinoids help us survive in a rapidly changing and often hostile environment3. Due to its involvement in many bodily functions, a prolonged imbalance of the ECS – such as a Clinical EndoCannabinoid Deficiency (CECD) – can cause negative effects on to a person’s health 5.
CECD is not categorized as a disease state itself but is rather used as an umbrella term that encompasses conditions with a common feature of endocannabinoid deficiency2. Some of the diseases/conditions associated with CECD include:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
The effectiveness of plant cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), in alleviating the symptoms of these three diseases suggests that properly adjusting the ECS system can clinically support or even resolve these conditions6. Make sure to stay tuned for Part II of this blog to learn more about plant cannabinoids.
Supporting the ECS
When the ECS is out of balance, so are we. Fortunately, there are various ways to support the ECS and how our body functions as a whole. The following is a list of lifestyle approaches that can be implemented to support the ECS with endocannabinoids5.
- Diet and Exercise
- Dietary cofactors are required for the ECS to function properly, therefore a healthy diet positively impacts endocannabinoid signaling. This is where working with a nutritionist can be extremely beneficial to balancing the bodily systems.
- In human and animal research, obesity has been shown to overstimulate the ECS by increasing levels of endocannabinoids and CB1 receptor expression. It has been suggested that weight loss in overweight individuals may beneficially modulate the ECS5.
- Research shows that medium and high-intensity exercise activates the ECS and improves the functioning of cannabinoid receptors by increasing their sensitivity7.
- Specific Dietary Choices
- Adequate intake of Omega 3 fatty acids is important for ECS signaling5.
- Probiotics and prebiotics are being studied due to preliminary research that suggests they may help to restore proper expression of cannabinoid receptors. Certain strains of probiotics have also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and help with depression5.
- Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants that can help reduce oxidative stress but interestingly, it also contains the endocannabinoid anandamide. Dark chocolate also contains compounds that slow the breakdown of anandamide increasing the length of time that it can stimulate the ECS7. So there is real science regarding using chocolate to calm stress.
- Pesticides and endocrine disrupting chemicals in food packaging can negatively impact ECS functioning, so it is best to aim to avoid them by choosing organic foods (because they are free of pesticides) and avoiding processed food as much as possible5.
- Stress Management
- Chronic stress negatively impacts the ECS by altering levels of receptor signaling. High levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, for prolonged periods of time leads to a reduction in CB1 receptors and reduces the ability of remaining receptors to bind to cannabinoids7.
- Stress reduction techniques such as yoga, massage, meditation, and breathing exercises have been shown to attenuate some of the effects of stress on the ECS5.
The ECS can also be supported with phytocannabinoids, such as THC and CBD.
Research on the interplay of the ECS and disease states is only in its infancy. The following is just a short list of diseases/conditions that science is beginning to examine the role of the ECS in:
- Neuropathic pain
- Movement disorders (Huntington’s/Parkinson’s)
- Dementia (Alzeihmer’s)
- Chronic pain
- Mood/sleep disorders
- Cardiac diseases
- Metabolic syndrome 6
Working with a nutritionist can be very beneficial in helping balance the bodily systems. Here at Starkel Nutrition we are proponents of functional medicine, evaluating the body and its processes as a whole. Whether it is diet, exercise or regulating intake of specific foods, vitamins or minerals, we are here to help you on that journey.
Schedule an appointment with one of our nutritionists today to learn more.
Written by Makala T., BS in Nutrition & Dietetics
- Ancient Nutrition Practitioner Education. (June 2, 2019). What is the Endocannabinoid System. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XX2BAcCM6cU.
- Dellwo, A. (April 26, 2019). What is the Endocannabinoid System. Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-the-endocannabinoid-system-4171855.
- Sulak, D. Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System. Retrieved from https://norml.org/library/item/introduction-to-the-endocannabinoid-system.
- Hui-Chen, L. & Mackie, K. (2015 Oct 30). An introduction to the endogenous cannabinoid system. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4789136/.
- Metagenics Institute. (2014). Science Review: The Endocannabinoid System. Retrieved from https://www.metagenicsinstitute.com/ce-education/science-sheets/the-endocannabinoid-system/?utm_campaign=MI%20Newsletters&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=73769104&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_pfIKLvX6Mmp85WVhbitGB3_ZGxKQzJZWUrJqu3ATgu_8tUeHC7iD2XV0WJAadagHJV8xBoxNyXC_PzkPdK5xksRBtnn2FYhQtFP0aVledjF-5×24&_hsmi=73769105.
- Meletis, C. (2019 Jun 1). The Important Role of the Endocannabinoid System and the Endocannabinoidome in Gut Health. Retrieved from http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.uws.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=d38ef7a2-7733-40cf-9da2-ef4c8cf32456%40sdc-v-sessmgr03.
- Fallis, J. (2017 Jul 20). 25 Powerful Ways to Boost Your Endocannabinoid System. Retrieved from https://www.optimallivingdynamics.com/blog/how-to-stimulate-and-support-your-endocannabinoid-system.
- Sallaberry, C. & Astern, L. (2018 Jun 1). The Endocannabinoid System, Our Universal Regulator. Retrieved from https://www.jyi.org/2018-june/2018/6/1/the-endocannabinoid-system-our-universal-regulator.