Imagine there was an unsung biological hero working quietly to bring balance to our body and mind, and that despite being one of the most important discoveries in human biology of the last thirty years, barely any doctors know about it? Sounds quite far-fetched right? But this is exactly the situation we currently face with the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
However, without understanding the endocannabinoid system’s importance in maintaining human health, we will never have all the information we need to take better care of our own wellbeing. That’s why I’ve created this two-part endocannabinoid system special, explaining in digestible terms everything we need to know about the ECS, as well as concrete tools to support better endocannabinoid function. (Spoiler alert CBD is not the only option).
Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System
A clue to why the endocannabinoid system (ECS) still isn’t common knowledge lies in the origins of its discovery.
At the beginning of the 1990s, scientists were trying to understand how THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the compound in cannabis responsible for its intoxication, acts in the body. They suspected THC, which is classed as a cannabinoid, must bind with special receptors in the body.
Their suspicions were confirmed when they discovered a vast network of cannabinoid receptors (CB1) in the brain and central nervous system into which THC fitted perfectly like a key in a lock. Another class of receptor (CB2) was also found in abundance in the immune system, and throughout all our major organs.
Which left the question, if our body’s cells have cannabinoid receptors, we must produce our own cannabinoid-like chemicals to activate them?
It was a team of researchers working with Professor Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli grandfather of cannabis research, who discovered the first endocannabinoid (‘endo’ meaning within and ‘cannabinoid’ referring to the special compounds in cannabis). They named it anandamide after the sanskrit word for bliss, as they suspected it probably created a feeling of blissed-out, well-being similar to that experienced by cannabis smokers.
Shortly after, 2-AG, another endocannabinoid with the slightly less sexy name was discovered. However, this still left the question – what does the endocannabinoid system actually do?
With the realisation that endocannabinoids travel backwards across synapses in nerve cells, the researchers soon had their answer. Normally neurotransmitters travel in the other direction delivering their chemical messages from the brain cell across the synaptic gap to the receptors in the receiving neuron. The fact that endocannabinoids travel in the other direction suggests they are produced to modulate neurotransmitter activity in the brain when it is out of balance. We can think of the ECS as being rather like a neurobiological dimmer switch – communicating with cells when their activity needs to be dialled down.
The Endocannabinoid System and Evolution
I should point out at this stage that humans are not unique in having an endocannabinoid system. If a species has a backbone, then it also has an endocannabinoid system. However, its origin goes back even as far as 600 million years ago when primitive, invertebrate animals such as seaquirts are known to have had cannabinoid receptors. This has led evolutionary biologists to conclude that the ECS has played an integral part in our evolution.
For instance, we know that anandamide levels increase after an extended period of running in animals designed for covering long distances such as humans, dogs and horses, (whereas in non-long distance running animals like ferrets they remain unchanged).
Many of us are familiar with the ‘runner’s high,’ that feeling of euphoric buzz that goes hand-in-hand with pounding the pavement. For many years, endorphins, the body’s natural opioids, were thought to be responsible for the high. However, a recent study showed that this feeling of euphoria was not endorphin dependent but instead probably down to increases in anandamide.
It’s suggested the anandamide buzz our modern day runners get, would have acted like a biological reward to our ancient ancestors as they ran for miles across the savannah. Not only that, because anandamide is both analgesic and anti-inflammatory, it would have helped them keep running when their body said otherwise.
The endocannabinoid system is also thought to create a reward effect in another key aspect of species survival: sex and reproduction, with this levels of 2-AG increasing after orgasm.
Hopefully by now you’re like ‘Wow, the endocannabinoid sounds amazing, I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before.’ You may also be wondering whether you can get your endocannabinoid levels measured.
At the moment we don’t have the technology to measure endocannabinoid levels, partly because they are immediately broken down after they have done their vital work. Anandamide is metabolised by an enzyme called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), while 2-AG by monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL).
Hang on a sec, you’re probably thinking. I hated science at school so why should I care about some random, strange-sounding enzymes (what is an enzyme anyway?).
Well, it’s actually one of these enzymes that explains why CBD may help our endocannabinoid systems work more optimally.
Because CBD blocks the production of the FAAH enzyme in the body, anandamide doesn’t get broken down so rapidly, so it gets to hang around for longer doing its mood boosting, anti-inflammatory effect.
So enzymes aren’t so boring after all, right?
The Endocannabinoid System and Human Health
Recent research suggests that the ECS plays a key role in regulating all biological functions including sleep, appetite, pain regulation, mood, reproduction, and our immune system; no other system in the body is so far-reaching.
Indeed as we learn more about the endocannabinoid system, it also appears to play a significant role in the body’s response to different illnesses.
If you take any health condition, be it chronic pain, neurodegenerative diseases, depression, and epilepsy, researchers have found that there is heightened endocannabinoid activity. The jury’s still out about whether this is just the body restoring homeostasis (balance), or whether this dysregulated endocannabinoid activity is part of the problem.
For example, it’s well documented that endocannabinoid levels are elevated in different types of cancer, which we may assume to be a good thing as endocannabinoids generally have antitumoral effects. In some cancers, higher CB1 receptor expression is associated with an improved prognosis while in others more CB1 receptors are an indicator of advanced tumour progression.
Dr Ethan Russo, an American neurologist, has developed a theory suggesting how some kind of endocannabinoid deficiency may contribute to a number of difficult-to-treat illnesses sharing an oversensitivity to pain such as fibromyalgia, IBS, migraines and MS. It’s curious to note that all these conditions respond favourably to compounds in the cannabis plant.
Why the ECS Isn’t Studied at Medical School
If the ECS is implicated in every type of illness, one would imagine that it would be included within the syllabus of most medical schools.
Sadly, for the moment this is not the case. If the ECS gets a mention at all (which mostly it doesn’t) it might take up half an hour in the context of cannabis as a drug of abuse. This is partly due to the endocannabinoid system’s fairly recent discovery, and its link to the cannabis plant itself. That said, in parts of the world where doctors have been prescribing cannabis for longer, a few forward-thinking medics have rebranded themselves as endocannabinologists and maintain endocannabinoid health at the centre of their practice as doctors.
If you’ve successfully reached the end of this article, you’re hopefully curious to find out about how you can keep your own ECS working optimally. Make sure to read part-two of this series as I explain what puts our ECS under undue stress, how this manifests in our bodies, as well as suggesting some simple lifestyle tips to keep our ECS working like a well-oiled machine.