THE ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM
Anyone familiar with CBD has likely seen the comprehensive list of benefits that this natural cannabinoid is believed to provide. And for many, this brings to mind the question: How can a single compound yield so many seemingly unrelated therapeutic effects, from reducing stress and improving sleep, to alleviating inflammation and reducing pain–and so much more? How is it that CBD is suggested to unlock so many benefits related to both our physical and mental health?
CBD produces its benefits through its interaction with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), the body’s “master regulatory system” whose proper function is essential to nearly all aspects of our physical and mental health. The endocannabinoid system is a network of cannabinoid receptors and neurotransmitters that spreads throughout the body and brain; cannabinoid receptors are found in the central nervous system, internal organs, peripheral tissues, skin, and immune system cells.
In this article, we describe the function of the endocannabinoid system and the delicate balancing act that it must perform to maintain nearly all aspects of our health. We proceed to describe how CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system once it enters the human body, and to demonstrate how and why it produces such wide-ranging benefits. As we will demonstrate, CBD supports a healthy endocannabinoid system, which is crucial to an individual’s physical and mental wellness.
The statements herein have not been evaluated by the US Food and Drug Administration and any information herein is not intended to aid any reader in the diagnosis, treatment, curing or prevention of any disease or other medical condition.
The Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System
When the endocannabinoid system was discovered in the 1990s, scientists realized that humans actually need cannabinoids to stay healthy in body and mind. Our bodies partially supply this need by producing their own endocannabinoids, neurotransmitters with the same shape as phytocannabinoids (such as CBD) that are naturally produced within the human body.
These endocannabinoids act as chemical messengers in the body that send signals when certain physiological systems–say, the system responsible for our circadian rhythms, or the system responsible for our body’s defenses against inflammation–become imbalanced. They then unlock cannabinoid receptors–which only cannabinoid-shaped neurotransmitters can interact with–to access these systems and restore them to balance.
A Lock-and-Key Interaction
Endocannabinoids are shaped specifically to bind with cannabinoid receptors, which were discovered throughout the body and brain–much as a certain key is specifically fitted to a certain lock. Without these endocannabinoids, the body would be unable to unlock these cannabinoid receptors to keep our physiological systems balanced.
Endo is the prefix for endogenous, meaning “within”: endocannabinoids are cannabinoids produced within the human body. To keep the endocannabinoid system functioning properly–and, in turn, to keep the body and mind healthy–our body relies upon this endogenous source of cannabinoids to manage cannabinoid receptors and the systems they control. When we consume CBD, we replenish the endocannabinoid system with exogenous cannabinoids (“exo” signifies that these cannabinoids come from without, or from outside of the human body: in this case, from hemp-derived extracts containing CBD). As we will discuss below, by using CBD to introduce these exogenous cannabinoids into the endocannabinoid system, we replenish our endocannabinoid system when endocannabinoid levels become too low.
CBD, Endocannabinoid Deficiency, and Endocannabinoid System Health
Although our body produces its own endocannabinoids, we often become endocannabinoid deficient (just as our body produces its own iron, but many individuals develop anemia). Endocannabinoid deficiency is the result of common lifestyle factors such as stress, diet, lack of exercise, sleep, and so forth, while many individuals are endocannabinoid deficient because of genetics and other factors beyond their control. Prominent cannabis researchers such as Ethan B. Russo have attributed many ailments and symptoms to endocannabinoid deficiency.
This is where CBD comes in. Phytocannabinoids, which come from plants, take the same shape and mimic the behavior of endocannabinoids when they enter the human body. Only cannabinoids can bind and communicate with cannabinoid receptors to send the signals that are essential to keeping our physiological systems functioning properly. And just as a certain key is specifically fitted for a certain lock, only cannabinoids–either endocannabinoids or phytocannabinoids–can unlock cannabinoid receptors to restore our physical and psychological health.
When we are endocannabinoid deficient, these processes become deregulated; as a result, certain processes become deregulated, and we develop symptoms. When we consume CBD, we replenish endocannabinoids and restore equilibrium to those processes; as a result, we experience symptom relief.
Achieving Balance: CBD and Homeostasis
By consuming CBD, we replenish endocannabinoid levels in the body, which supports endocannabinoid system health. And a healthy endocannabinoid system is crucial to physical and mental health. This is because the endocannabinoid system is constantly striving to bring the various systems it controls into harmonious equilibrium, a state of internal balance also known as “homeostasis.” Homeostasis is a state of biological balance in which interdependent external systems function in stable equilibrium, despite the environmental presence of changing external factors. To achieve homeostasis, however, the endocannabinoid system must function properly, which means that we must have sufficient cannabinoid levels in the body to balance and maintain the proper functions of the systems it controls. This is why many individuals benefit so profoundly from CBD; homeostasis is an optimal state of physical and mental health, and it is absolutely crucial to human health.
Systems and Bodily Functions Impacted by the ECS
As numerous studies show, the ECS modulates nearly all physiological processes and bodily functions in the body and brain. Though it would be impossible to list all of the aspects of our health affected by the ECS, here are a few examples:
- Immune system function
- Neurological functioning
This is a tiny sampling of the systems that rely upon the proper functioning of the endocannabinoid system, also known as the body’s “master regulatory system” for its expansive control over our physiological processes and bodily functions.
Cannabinoid Receptors: CB1 and CB2
The endocannabinoid system is composed of endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors. CBD produces its benefits by binding with these cannabinoid receptors when our body does not produce enough endocannabinoids to maintain their proper function; cannabinoids both signal the problem when a system has become deregulated, and provides the solution by unlocking these receptors and restoring balance to the region of the body or brain that they control.
The endocannabinoid system consists of two types of cannabinoid receptors, known as CB1 and CB2.
- CB1 receptors are found throughout the central nervous system, and cannabinoids bind with these receptors to restore balance to the systems responsible for mood,sleep, stress, cognition, pain signalling, and much, much more.
- CB2 receptors are found in highest concentration on immune system cellsand within the digestive tract, though they spread elsewhere throughout the body in various other locations, including the organs and peripheral tissues. Due to their role in immune system function, CB2 receptors are thought to modulate inflammation (which is, essentially, an immune system response). CB2 receptors control a wide range of other, essential bodily functions.
CBD and other cannabinoids bind with these receptors to unlock access to the cellular regions they control in the body and brain, while acting as chemical messengers that send signals when certain systems aren’t functioning properly. In other words, cannabinoids interact with cannabinoid receptors to identify problems and provide solutions, helping reestablish homeostasis when our physiological processes become deregulated. This deregulation of the endocannabinoid system–the result of endocannabinoid deficiency–results in symptoms, while the regulation that CBD and other cannabinoids provide offers symptom relief.
The endocannabinoid system was first discovered when scientists learned that the body produces its own endocannabinoids; soon thereafter, they identified the purpose of these endocannabinoids when they discovered cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. They proceeded to realize that endocannabinoids and cannabinoids interact in a manner that is crucial to maintaining our physical and psychological health.
Binding Between Cannabinoids and Cannabinoid Receptors: A Lock-and-Key Interaction
Endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors bind in a lock-and-key fashion. Just as a certain key is specifically designed to fit a certain lock, endocannabinoids are specifically shaped to bind with and unlock cannabinoid receptors. And because they have this unique shape, endocannabinoids are the only neurotransmitters that can “unlock” cannabinoid receptors and the systems they control (after all, a key shaped for, say, your front door, won’t work to start your car, and vice versa).
When we become endocannabinoid deficient, our endocannabinoid system loses the keys it needs to unlock cannabinoid receptors and access, restore, and rebalance the physiological systems that they control. When we consume CBD and other exogenous cannabinoids, however, we supply our body with spare keys–shaped and fitted like endocannabinoids, or like the original key designed to fit into the lock on your door–to unlock cannabinoid receptors, which allows the body to regulate the physiological processes within that cellular region.
When you use a key–an original, or a spare–to unlock your front door, you gain access to the room inside. Once you unlock the door, you can go into the room and regulate what’s happening inside. If it’s too hot, you can turn up the AC; if it’s too cold, you can turn up the heat; if the TV is too loud, you can turn the volume down–and so forth.
By unlocking access to the region controlled by any given cannabinoid receptor, cannabinoids–endogenous or exogenous–can access to the cells that those cannabinoid receptors control: cannabinoids alone have the ability to rebalance the systems affected by the behavior of cells in that area. For instance, if the CB1 receptor responsible for our stress reactions is functioning improperly, endocannabinoids can unlock that receptor and rebalance the system responsible for the way in which the body reacts to stress. As a result, the balance in that cellular region is restored: just as, if you turn the AC up in a room that’s too hot, you restore a balanced temperature to the environment within that space.
CBD, The Endocannabinoid System, and Human Health
When we are endocannabinoid deficient, our endocannabinoid loses its ability to unlock cannabinoid receptors and balance physiological processes throughout the body and brain. If our body cannot supply enough endocannabinoids to fulfill this need, these systems become deregulated or imbalanced, and as a result, we feel symptoms. Say this occurs in the region of the ECS responsible for balancing our circadian rhythms–when this system becomes deregulated, we might develop sleeping problems, and our body is unable to access the region responsible for that process to restore balance to the dysfunctional system.
When we use CBD, we introduce cannabinoids into the body that have the same shape, and fulfill the same purposes, as endocannabinoids. If we return to the example of the system responsible for our sleeping patterns: when we consume CBD, we supply our body with the spare keys, or exogenous cannabinoids, to unlock the region responsible for our sleeping patterns. Cannabinoids unlock these receptors and restore balance to the system that has become deregulated. As a result, our sleep improves, and we feel symptom relief.
In short, endocannabinoid deficiency translates to symptoms, while ingesting cannabinoids such as CBD allows the body to combat the underlying problem. And because cannabinoid receptors spread throughout the body and brain–and because the systems they control are responsible for so many aspects of our physical and mental health–cannabinoids can alleviate a wide variety of symptoms. This is why CBD is linked to so many diverse, seemingly unrelated benefits for our physical and mental health.