We’ve all got one. It helps us sleep, boosts our immune system, and keeps our motor functions running. And still, few of us have ever heard of it: the Endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Although only discovered in the late 80s/early 90s, this complex signalling system plays a big role in our bodies – from the embryonic stage to the day we jump off this planet. And as much as the name suggests otherwise, it’s working away in the background, even if you don’t take CBD supplements or enjoy one of those “naughty” ciggies. It’s built-in.
ECS exists in all animals, except insects. Every body function is influenced or balanced by it, it takes care of your physiological processes and organs by acting and reacting to internal or external influences. And by doing so, it manages your health.
So how does it work? Similar to the nervous system, the ECS is all about keeping your body in balance. Simplified, and as far as science understands it at this point, it’s a concept that is based on only three components: Endocannabinoids, receptors and enzymes.
Endocannabinoids (also known as endogenous cannabinoids) are molecules produced by your brain and the central nervous system. They are similar to the cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant, which the ECS was named after.
So far, research has defined two major endocannabinoids: anandamide (arachidonoyl ethanolamide) and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG). They work as neurotransmitters and are produced pretty much on demand within cell membranes when your body needs them. While anandamide (from the Sanskrit word ‘ananda’ meaning ‘bliss’ or ‘joy’) is impacting on working memory and early stage embryo development, 2-AG has been found in maternal bovine and even human breastmilk.
That brings us to the cannabinoid receptors. They sit on the surface of our cells and scan the outside for any out-of-balance conditions. When necessary, they inform the cell about its changed environment, so it can trigger an appropriate response.
There are several cannabinoid receptors but, so far, the best-studied ones are CB1 and CB2. Although both can be found all over your body, the CB1 receptors are most abundant in your brain and central nervous system. They also interact with THC and are responsible for the cannabis high. CB2 receptors, on the other hand, operate mostly outside the central nervous system and can be found in places like your immune system.
Last but not least, in come the metabolic enzymes. They are the cleaning team of the ECS, stepping in when our bodies are done with the Endocannabinoids, quickly breaking them down to make space for new ones and keeping the body tidy.
These three components can be found in almost every corner of your body. Their job is to detect irregularities, step in when necessary and balance them out. They keep your body in homeostasis (sense of balance) which is a big factor in staying healthy.
That said, as powerful as the ECS is, it can be thrown out of balance, for instance by aging, chronic use of “traditional” prescription medications, stress, illness or generally an unhealthy lifestyle. The good news is that, just like any other body system, you can look after your ECS by eating healthy food, getting enough exercise and sleep, reducing stress and all the other good deeds we can do to keep our bodies happy. But sometimes that’s just not enough. That’s when the cannabis plant can help, although to get the best medical results, it should always go hand in hand with positive lifestyle changes.
Just like the ECS releases Endocannabinoids, cannabis produces a variety of plant-based cannabinoids. At this point, the stars of research are THC and CBD. While THC mimics anandamide, CBD blocks the break-down of this Endocannabinoid. They bind to the receptors in the same way as our body-produced molecules, helping the system get back into balance. And that is basically why cannabis has been discovered as an all-round health booster for humans and animals alike.
That said – and here’s why legalisation is such an important factor – it’s not a one-size-fits-all method to boost your health. Excessive consumption of cannabis can back-fire. As much as cannabis has been shown to help with an array of different health conditions and illnesses, if overused it can have the same effects as an unhealthy lifestyle: by continuously consuming too much, a healthy ECS can be brought out of balance.
Much cannabis research has been done since the 80s and we continue to discover more about it, especially now that several countries have finally brought in legalisation of either medical, recreational, or both. It created the basis for honest education. More and more medical professionals are opening their minds, learning about the ECS and how cannabis can boost its health. Together with the general public, they are discovering why it is so important to include cannabis as a medicine.
After all, this healing plant is so much more than an entertaining way to beam yourself off the planet. When it comes down to it, it’s about staying healthy – by caring for your very own Endocannabinoid system.