Role of the Endocannabinoid System and Your Health

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

All mammals have one. So do birds, reptiles, and even fish. What is it? Read on to find out more.

The endocannabinoid system is a group of lipid-based messaging and moderating receptors, ligands, enzymes, and cannabinoid antagonists. It has been recognized as an "important modulatory system in the function of brain, endocrine, and immune tissues".

The endocannabinoid system has wide ranging implications in human wellness and behavior. Endocannabinoids influence the nervous system, immune system, organs, the modulation of pain and inflammation, mental health, and reproduction. It plays a homeostatic role, or, in other words, keeps a system of checks and balances in the body.

The cannabinoid system has been linked with several "disorders--notably obesity, metabolic syndrome, pain, and multiple sclerosis."

The Identification of the Endocannabinoid System

Because identification of the receptors didn’t happen until 1990, we are still early in our understanding of it. The system is complex; we are likely in the infancy of fully grasping the affects of it. However, many exciting things have been learned in the last 20 years with good therapeutic implications.

CB1R was the first cannabinoid receptor discovered, and at first it was found only in the brain. Later, CB1R was found in the peripheral nervous system and in the peripheral tissues.

What are the Components of the Endocannabinoid System?

Previous to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, what was known about the nervous system was that the signals were water soluble. However, it was discovered that there were some chemicals that were involved that didn’t behave according to the understood rules and were not water-soluble. They were instead lipid, or fat-soluble messengers. The early description of the system did not include specific receptors. The later discovery of additional channels and receptors contributed to our understanding of the system.

Two endocannabinoid receptors have been identified as having a large role in the system: CB1, and CB2. CB1 is located primarily in the nervous system and brain, as well as in the organs and tissues. CB2 has been found throughout tissues involved in the immune system, gastrointestinal system, and brain.

The primary compounds produced by the body identified as having action on the receptors include anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), 2-arachidonyl glyceryl ether, virodhamine, and N-arachidonoyl-dopamine. In addition, the system includes enzymes that break down the endocannabinoids, neurons and neural pathways.

Overall Role of the System

The specific role of the endocannabinoid system seems to be one of “traffic control.” In contrast to neurons where chemical messages are sent from neurons to receptors, endocannabinoids travel backwards and are made on demand. The neurons and neurotransmitters, for example, have specific jobs to do, but the endocannabinoids tell them when to “go” and when to “slow down.” Your body must continually monitor and balance itself, and this system plays a large role in this regulation.

The Connection Between the Digestive System and Nervous System

One fascinating role of the endocannabinoid system is that it seems to play a role in the gut-brain axis. This connection has become increasingly viewed as an important part of health. In particular, the role of gut bacteria to brain health has been examined. 

Evidence suggests that bacteria in the digestive system influence the central nervous system through a number of pathways. The endocannabinoid system likely is a key player.

A 2017 paper by Acharyna,it is explained that the endocannabinoid system has a role in the immune system of the gut and pancreas. The study details that the endocannabinoid system helps to maintain homeostasis and opens up communication between the nervous and immune system.

It can be hypothesized that dysfunction of the gut or the endocannabinoid system itself could create a wide range of neurological problems. If there is pathology in the gut, the endocannabinoid system could theoretically communicate this to the nervous system and brain, and lead to a cascade of events that causes nervous system disorders. Likewise, dysfunction in the endocannabinoid system itself could lead to problems with healthy signals back and forth between the gut and brain, and then lead to some disorders.

Scientists have thought that the endocannabinoid system plays a role in many diseases. It's been proposed that migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, other gastrointestinal pathologies, and fibromyalgia, could stem from clinical endocannabinoid deficiency syndroms. Deficiencies in that signaling could also be involved in a number of other diseases.

Decrease in Endocannabinoids in Migrane Sufferers

 A 2007 study in Neuropsychopharmacology, found that chronic migraine sufferers have a decrease in anandamide when compared to controls. The authors of the study hypothesised that the disfunction of the endocannabinoid system can lead to this chronic pain.

In fact, utilizing this system in the treatment of migraines is not new. According to an article in Pain by Russo, "It was highly esteemed as a headache remedy by the most prominent physicians of the age between 1874 and 1942, remaining part of the Western pharmacopoeia for this indication even into the mid-twentieth century."

Chronic Pain and the Endocannabinoid System

Acute pain, or pain that is directly related to tissue damage and is short-lived, may not be mediated as much by the endocannabinoid system. A study showed that pain relief was limited when subjects were subjected to a sunburn spot. The administration of THC had little effect on pain perception.

Studies on chronic pain, however, show greater promise in treatment. The resultion of chronic pain had much better outcomes when treated by cannabinoids.  Chronic pain caused by a variety of conditions seemed to respond to treatment.

One of the more complex features of endocannabinoids is that they can contribute to both increasing and decreasing the perception of pain.

When the body experiences inflammation or tissue injury, it causes a rapid increase in local endocannabinoid levels. What this means is that the system is involved in the repair of the site of the injury. The system has complex feedback mechanisms that prevent the body from creating more inflammation than necessary, as too much can lead to tissue damage. If the body is in a diseased state or if the endocannabinoid system is not functioning optimally, this could lead to ineffective repair of damage.

A healthy functioning endocannabinoid system ensures that other processes in the body are occurring at optimal levels for the situation. A dysfunctional system, on the other hand, leads to pathologies that are due likely not due to the endocannabinoids themselves, but in the problems of regulating the signals throughout the body. 

Think of it like this: if you would take away traffic signals and stop signs in a city, chaos and accidents are a likely outcome. Your endocannabinoid system helps govern other systems in the body to keep it in balance.

How CBD Affects the Endocannabinoid System*

The reason that having suppressed levels of endocannabinoids causes such far-reaching issues is that when the body’s control system is having issues, it leads to a cascade of issues in the body. That’s why so many people with one disease have co-morbidity with others. The body’s balancing system is not doing its job.

CBD has been found to slow the breakdown of some of the messengers in the endocannabinoid system. It slows the breakdown of anandamide, which is key for healthy signaling throughout the body. For those who have deficiencies caused by any number of factors, taking CBD can help the body retain more of these messengers.  

By restoring these levels, it has the potential to allow the body to function on a more “normal” level. This is the experience that many people say occurs when taking CBD, and also why side effects of taking too large of a dose seem to be limited. CBD has very little affinity for the receptors itself, but instead affects the levels of balancing chemicals. Once restored to optimal levels, they can do their job of keeping equilibrium through the body.


*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.




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