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Endocannabinoid System – What is it good for?

Endocannabinoid System – What is it good for?

The Endocannabinoid System: What’s it good for? Absolutely everything!

People live healthier and longer today thanks to medical science and pharmacology advances, but there is still no substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle. As a professor of human nutrition at the University of California, San Diego, I frequently tell my students that a healthy diet and regular exercise will cover a multitude of sins. It is better to stay healthy than to have to be cured. I share this because it is essential to understand cannabis as both a food and a source of bioactive chemicals called cannabinoids. So let’s take a look at the Endocannabinoid System…

The recent growth and popularity of cannabis is unprecedented. Cannabis, whether from the marijuana plant with high concentrations of THC, or the hemp plant, with concentrations of THC at less than 0.3%, has been touted as a cure-all – reducing inflammation, improving sleep, decreasing anxiety, alleviating gastrointestinal dysfunctions, boosting your immune response, and even curing cancer.  How can this plant do absolutely everything? The answer is the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and its interactions with all our other physiological systems. Ironically this, in and of itself, has caused some individuals to ask how something like the ECS is involved with everything.

In the late 1980s, researchers explored how THC interacted with the body using new techniques for radiolabeling targets for research. Using a synthesized, radiolabeled cannabinoid, a research group from the St. Louis University found high-affinity binding sites, known as receptors, in rat brain membranes. In the early 1990s, CB1 and CB2 receptors were identified in vertebrates, including humans. CB1 is one of the most abundant G-protein-coupled receptors in the central nervous system. It’s found at particularly high levels in the neocortex, hippocampus, basal ganglia, cerebellum, and brainstem. CB1 also is found on peripheral nerve terminals and some other areas, such as the testis, eye, vascular endothelium, and spleen. CB2 receptors occur mainly on immune cells and have been detected in the central nervous system, associated with inflammation, addiction, and synaptic plasticity.  Those molecules, the receptors they act on, how they are metabolized, created, and broken down, all get clumped into what we call the ECS.

“Receptors don’t exist because there’s a plant out there,” said Mechoulam in an interview at the 13th European Congress on Epileptology. “Receptors exist because we, through compounds made in our body, activate them. So we went looking for the endogenous compounds that activate the cannabinoid receptors.”

In 1992 Dr. Mechoulam isolated our two endogenous cannabinoids; anandamide and 2-AG. Anandamide, meaning bliss in Sanskrit, binds to the CB1 receptor and has been associated with the runner’s high. THC, the phytocannabinoid, mimics anandamides and binds to the CB1, providing the high associated with marijuana use.

Let’s come back to how the ECS ‘does absolutely everything’. I think of the ECS as the global modulator of homeostasis. One of the major effects of endogenous cannabinoids is to regulate the release of dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters. The endocannabinoids and how they interact with cells, with organs, with entire systems of the human being and other animals, yelp get things accomplished. It helps organ systems and signaling systems like your hormones and your nervous system and your immune system, your gut, to interact with each other and maintain physiological balance, known as homeostasis. Since their discovery, endocannabinoids have been found to play a role in memory, mood, appetite and metabolism, sleep, pain response, thermoregulation and immunity.

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“Two eminent scientists at the NIH said that the endocannabinoid system is involved in essentially all human disease,” said Mechoulam. “This is a very strong statement, but it seems to be correct. Today we know that the endocannabinoid system—the receptors, the endocannabinoids, the enzymes that form and break down the endocannabinoids – are involved in many physiological reactions, and therefore in many disease states.”

Those cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant called phytocannabinoids interact with the body’s ECS in complicated and dynamic ways. The discovery of the ECS is one of the most significant breakthroughs in biomedical science in the last hundred years, in my opinion.  Our growing understanding of how the ECS works and how it is affected by cannabinoids in our diet, like those found in cannabis, can change how we treat diseases and support good health. By studying plant cannabinoids, including the phytocannabinoids THC and CBD, we have learned a great deal about how all cannabinoids, those produced endogenously or from plants, interact.

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