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The secrets of the endocannabinoid system

While modern medicine may claim to have most of the answers to the illnesses that plague mankind, scientific research into cannabis over the past 50 years or so has proven that there’s plenty we still do not understand – if we’ve even heard of it at all.

This is the case with the endocannabinoid system, an incredible network that has a remarkable influence over our physical and mental wellbeing. Yet this system was completely unheard of by researchers and biologists until the 1990s, when cannabinoid receptors and anandamide (the first endocannabinoid) were identified. Cannabinoid receptors have since been located throughout in the body, including in the brain, skin, gut, central nervous system and peripheral nervous system.

The discovery of anandamide by legendary cannabis expert Raphael Mechoulam essentially showed us that there are chemicals produced by the body that have some similarities with cannabinoids (aka phytocannabinoids), a rare type of compounds mostly found in cannabis. Both endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids are compatible with the endocannabinoid system. Therefore, the medicinal properties of cannabis now make much more sense – the plant is so helpful for a myriad of conditions because there’s a system that is essentially designed for cannabis.

Recent research has looked to uncover the long relationship that humans have had with cannabis and how it’s possible that we have evolved with the plant – the endocannabinoid system, which is present in many life forms, is first thought to have appeared about 600 million years ago.

Responsibilities of the endocannabinoid system

But just what roles does the endocannabinoid system (ECS) have to fulfil? Above all else, the ECS is tasked with keeping the body in equilibrium, or homeostasis. It manages this by regulating all the other mental and physical functions, which are as follows:

  • Immune system response
  • Sleep patterns
  • Pain sensation
  • Mood
  • Appetite
  • Reproductive cycles
  • And much, much more

Many conditions are caused by excessive inflammation – even depression and other mental health disorders have been linked to brain inflammation. That the ECS can regulate immune system response therefore is an intriguing find.

Not all inflammation is bad – in fact, it’s a natural reaction that the body takes when it needs to defend from an external threat. Inflammation can help to treat infections or remove pathogens from the body or heal damaged tissue, as it does with the skin following an injury. Immune cells head to the affected area to help repair the body and restore the much-sought after state of homeostasis.

However, if inflammation extends to regions where it is not required or lasts for longer than necessary, it starts to have a negative effect on the body. Indeed, this is how auto-immune diseases and conditions typified by chronic inflammation, like arthritis, manifest. In the case of autoimmune diseases, immune cells start attacking healthy cells, and with chronic inflammation, the effects of the immune cells last for too long.

However, research has shown that endocannabinoids can have a calming effect on the body’s immune system by reducing the number of inflammatory signals that the body sends. Research overseen by the University of South Carolina’s Professor Prakash Nagarkatti suggests that influencing the ECS could hold the key to treating inflammatory conditions.

Professor Nagarkatti argues that his study shows that the body produces endocannabinoids after immune cells become activated. These endocannabinoids may help to ensure the body’s immune response is balanced, and not overly inflammatory. Therefore, it could be possible to help treat conditions with “interventions that manipulate the metabolism or production of endocannabinoids.”

For example, if the body becomes infected with bacteria, the immune cells would first identify the problem before instructing immune cells to treat it via the emission of pro-inflammatory molecules. Then endocannabinoids get involved, ensuring that the inflammation is regulated and doesn’t get out of control. This allows the immune system to treat an infection or repair broken skin through inflammation, and then stop inflammation when the healing process is complete.

It may sound too good to be true, but humans have used cannabis for many thousands of years where history has been recorded, and the herb was a fixture in several ancient medicinal practices. While the ancients may not have had a scientific understanding of cannabis, they clearly knew how it could have a positive effect on health.

How CBD supports the endocannabinoid system

Modern science has revealed that cannabidiol (CBD) is largely to thank for the stunning therapeutic properties of the plant. CBD is a non-psychoactive substance that helps ensure the body’s endocannabinoid tone is as it should be, by regulating the concentration of endocannabinoids in the ECS.

That’s why we’re seeing so many CBD-orientated products on the markets nowadays, from CBD edibles to CBD concentrates to CBD coffee. The previous drawback of having to get high to enjoy the therapeutic impact of cannabis has been removed, with growers now breeding specific medical strains that are rich in CBD, and low in psychoactive THC.

CBD is considered to have antidepressant properties, which is encouraging since latest World Health Organization reports estimate 300 million people suffer from depression. These effects look to come form the effect that CBD has on anandamide.

Anandamide is broken down by fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), but unfortunately this enzyme degrades anandamide so much that the ECS becomes out of balance. CBD slows or prevents the breakdown of this endocannabinoid, which keeps more of it in the body that can then interact with cannabinoid receptors to boost mood. Hence, CBD is regulating the ECS.

Studies into the ‘runner’s high’ have shown that this exercise-induced euphoria does not come from a surge of endorphins to the brain, but thanks to a surge of anandamide. This became apparent after it was proven that endorphins cannot be absorbed through the blood-brain barrier, yet anandamide can.

And perhaps the best thing of all about CBD vape juice and other CBD products is that they have no significant or long-term side effects. And they aren’t addictive either.

Final thoughts

The irony is that after years of non-scientific scaremongering about cannabis and the supposed detrimental effect it can have on mental health, sensible use of the plant with the right products that contain the appropriate cannabinoids can actually be very beneficial for mental health.

The last significant progress in mental health treatment came with the development of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in the 1980s. These make no interactions with the ECS, and subsequently do nothing to promote anandamide, that powerful antidepressant produced by our own body.

These revelations concerning the endocannabinoid system clearly tell us that research into this network is as important as any research in medicine today.

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