The body has an innate signaling system known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Since the discovery of this system, it has been called possibly the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.
The cannabinoid system performs different tasks in each part of the body, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment. It helps cells stay in their optimum zone.
Here are the three ways the endocannabinoid system is effected.
THREE ELEMENTS OF THE ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM
#1 Endocannabinoid Molecules
The human body produces these small molecules on its own, and they activate cannabinoid receptors that sit on the surface of cells throughout the body. The two major endocannabinoids produced by the body are anandamide and 2-AG. They are synthesized “on demand,” meaning they get made and used exactly when they’re needed rather than pre-made and saved for later use. Although both are endocannabinoids, their metabolic pathways are largely different.
Anandamide or AEA, was discovered in 1992 and originates from the sanskrit “ananda,” which roughly translates to “bliss” or “joy,” an indication of its ability to support emotional balance. It’s created on demand when needed to maintain homeostasis and can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors but has a much greater affinity for CB1 receptors (primarily in the brain). Ever felt a “runner’s high?” This feeling is due to anandamide, which increases in the blood during aerobic exercise and then crosses the blood-brain barrier and binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. There are endorphins involved, but the rush is caused by anandamide.
2-arichidonylglycerol (2-AG) has been identified in the gut as well as the brain. There is more 2-AG than anandamide in the body, and it a very strong affinity to the CB1 receptors. 2-AG is also the main activator of CB2 receptors (anandamide doesn’t do much with the CB2 receptors). When it comes to the role of the CB2 receptors, this involves supporting the immune system and healthy inflammatory levels, supporting brain health, and involvement in communication from the gut flora to the brain.
As it turns out, the cannabinoids in the hemp plant have a nearly identical chemical structure as the endocannabinoids produced in the human body (specifically anandamide and 2-AG). Both endocannabinoids (internally produced) and cannabinoids (from hemp) act on and influence cannabinoid receptors.
Fun fact: Cannabinoids in CBD don’t make you high because they don’t interact with CB1 receptors in the brain in the same way as THC from marijuana. Also, the enzymes that break down cannabinoids, particularly anandamide and 2-AG, don’t work on THC, so THC lingers around for much longer.
#2 CB1 and CB2 Cannabinoid Receptors
Two main receptors, CB1 and CB2, sit on the surface of cells located throughout the nervous system and around the body, to which the endocannabinoids and cannabinoids bind. They “listen” to conditions outside the cell and transmit information about changing conditions to the inside of the cell, jump-starting the appropriate cellular response.
CB1 receptors are mostly found in the brain and nerves, and are involved in coordination, pain, emotions, mood, thinking, appetite, memories and other functions. The CB2 receptors are more abundant outside of the nervous system, such as within the immune system, and are involved in inflammatory pathways and pain. Interestingly, 80-90% of the cells in the brain are immune cells, which means they have CB2 receptors associated with them – this indicates the brain contains both CB1 and CB2 receptors.
These enzymes ensure endocannabinoids and cannabinoids get used when needed, but quickly destroy them once they’re used to ensure they don’t stick around longer than necessary. This distinguishes endocannabinoids from other molecular signals in the body, such as hormones or neurotransmitters, which can persist for many seconds, minutes, or get packaged and stored for later use.
There are two primary enzymes: FAAH, which breaks down anandamide and MAGL, which breaks down 2-AG.
Homeostasis and the Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system’s ability to maintain homeostasis in the body is fascinating! Normally, the flow of information between neurons is strictly in one direction, from “sender” to “receiver”; however, endocannabinoids allow receiver neurons to regulate how much input they’re getting, and they do this by sending retrograde signals back to overactive sender neurons. This is so important for the brain, digestive system, immune system, and practically every other system in the body when it comes to regulating how its cells are functioning (aka: homeostasis).
When someone isn’t in a good, homeostatic balance, there are differing symptoms dependent on if the ECS is overstimulated or deficient.
Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency
If endocannabinoid function were decreased, which is more common for people, it may show up as a lower pain threshold, digestive disturbances, and changes in mood and sleep.
Hyperactive/Too Much Stimulation
An overstimulated ECS is often a result of too much THC, which can overstimulate the brain and lead to the following:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Obesity and over-eating
- Increased inflammation
- Insulin resistance and blood sugar dysregulation
- Mental health instability, especially in adolescents and especially in female adolescents.
Various lifestyle factors, including diet and aerobic activity, affect the overall ECS function, which keeps internal bodily functions stable and controls how we think, feel and react. In order to prevent overstimulation of the ECS, limit products with THC and focus more on products with CBD, such as a broad spectrum hemp CBD.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
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