If the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is an alien concept to you – don’t worry! This obscure network is not as well-known as other biological systems, such as the immune system, the opioid system and the endocrine system, but it is arguably as important as any that scientists have ever discovered.
The ECS is a system in the body that seems to have evolved to interact with cannabinoids, powerful but unusual chemicals that are nearly exclusive to strains of cannabis and industrial hemp. This revelation came in the 1990s, and was not a huge surprise, as researchers had been looking for a compound – or the “endogenous analogue” – for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) since isolating it in the 1960s.
This ultimately led to finding anandamide, an endocannabinoid and neurotransmitter which can change appetite, mood and much more. And as experts have experimented with the ECS, they have learned how various conditions can be treated by working with this system, and also the general health benefits of keeping it in balance.
Substituting anandamide for THC, which takes longer to be degraded, making it more potent, can be helpful for many illnesses – but it has remained a controversial substance. This is because it produces psychoactive effects, which alter the mental state of the user in less-understood ways. Cannabis has been notorious for recreational abuse for decades and was perhaps the most popular drug during the counterculture of the 1960s, which engulfed the United Kingdom, the United States and much of the West.
While the medicinal benefits of THC have been forgotten somewhat, cannabis is enjoying a 21st century resurgence, largely thanks to another, more accepted cannabinoid: cannabidiol (CBD). CBD exhibits a range of therapeutic effects, which have received lots of attention because of the remarkably few downsides – CBD is not psychoactive, and decades of study have found the compound to have no abuse risk. The substance has been researched, to some degree, for as long as THC, but made national headlines in the US back in 2013, when a CNN documentary highlighted how non-intoxicating, CBD-rich cannabis oil was being used to help patients with treatment-resistant epilepsy.
Public interest in CBD and a demand for more information soared as a result, and other benefits of CBD soon came to attention. The hemp-based CBD industry is now booming and may reach a global market value of more than $10 billion by 2025. Popular products include CBD creams, CBD vape oil and e-liquid, CBD edibles and CBD concentrates – none of which will lead to a “high”.
The ECS may be better served, in general, by CBD than THC, as the cannabinoid initiates a series of regulatory effects. If endocannabinoid levels are low, CBD can block the enzymes that degrade them. CBD can enhance endocannabinoid signalling which may help to alleviate psychotic symptoms in schizophrenic patients. CBD can also control the binding affinity of receptors, as a positive or negative allosteric modulator, to bring about balance in the brain, and manage conditions like anxiety and psychosis.
Now let’s look in more detail at some specific benefits of endocannabinoid system regulation, and the role that CBD may have in achieving this.
Many conditions are caused by excessive inflammation, which comes from faulty immune system response. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system gets so out of control, that it begins to attack the tissues and organs of the host (i.e. the person suffering). Unfortunately, there is a misconception that all inflammation is bad, but it can actually be very useful, when killing off infections, healing wounds or ensuring there is enough sebum produced to form a protective, waterproof layer on the skin.
The immune system has always been difficult to manage, but ECS studies have found that endocannabinoids can limit inflammation, by binding with and sending signals through the CB2 receptor. This receptor is predominant in the peripheral nervous system. Activation through the skin is possible with CBD-infused creams – this can help to treat acne. Internal issues, such as brain inflammation and inflammation of the gut may be eased with CBD gummy bears, and other products that require inhalation or ingestion.
Without enough sleep, we become tired and fatigued in the day, which can make us moodier with others, less productive at work and unable to enjoy the finer things in life to the fullest. Sleep is also vital for the health of the brain, as this is when neurotoxins are flushed away. In a nutshell, sleep is absolutely critical for our wellbeing, but the stressful realities of day-to-day life means not all of us get the recommended seven hours of shuteye per night.
This is where ECS regulation and CBD can help – the system is charged with regulating the body’s sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm. This cycle helps us to feel energized in the day, and sleepy in the evening – for instance, by regulating melatonin production.
If your sleeping pattern is off track or you simply aren’t getting enough, taking some CBD in the run-up to bedtime can help shift the body into a sleepy state. For those who wake up in the night, perhaps due to pain, a supplement that works all night, such as CBD capsules, may be most beneficial.
The body needs anandamide to suppress sensations of pain – fibromyalgia patients who experience intense pain and tender point could be suffering from a lack of anandamide. Research has shown that anandamide binds with the vanilloid receptor, which is proven to control pain perception.
Stopping fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) from breaking anandamide down is an important role of CBD, as anandamide seems to be the most useful endocannabinoid in the ECS. If bouts of pain come in a sudden, acute fashion, then they are most effectively treated with CBD oil or by vaping CBD e-juice. For longer periods of discomfort, where symptoms are ever-present but not so intense, CBD capsules or edibles may be a more economical choice.
There remain plenty of holes in depression research, but chemical imbalance has been a leading theory for decades, and it stands to reason that the antidepressant anandamide plays a role in improving mood. Indeed, it is this neurotransmitter that is released into the brain, in copious quantities, when we exercise. This “runner’s high” gives us short-term feelings of euphoria, that are especially helpful when suffering from a mood slump.
But not everybody has the ambition or ability to go running or to hit the gym, which is where CBD comes in as a natural mood elevator. Supplementing the body with this cannabinoid promotes anandamide, which binds to the mood-influencing CB1 receptor.
The endocannabinoid system and the role of cannabis will be recognized more and more as medical usage of the herb becomes more prevalent. Moreover, as experts dive deeper into the nuances of the ECS, new treatment possibilities and benefits of regulation should come to the fore.