What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) can be found in almost every part of our body, but especially the nervous system and immune system. A healthy endocannabinoid system enables homeostasis. This simply means the ECS balances our cells and organs – it’s the Yin and Yang of the body.
In order to maintain this balance, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) regulates physical and emotional processes like appetite and mood.
It does this with substances called endocannabinoids, which are neurotransmitters. Simply put, neurotransmitters are “chemical commands” that one cell releases to tell another cell what to do, creating a specific biological response.
The net effect of these commands is called endocannabinoid tone. Tonic systems in the body have resting activity, so cannabinoid receptors are constantly activated by a low level of anandamide production. Because the system has a resting activity of greater than 0, that means that its activity can be turned down! This is how the ECS is able to control regulation; if it wasn’t able to decrease its activity from the baseline, then it wouldn’t be able to promote balance when a process needs to be reduced slightly.
Do I have an endocannabinoid system?
All mammals have an endocannabinoid system (ECS). Its discovery has been a 40 year journey, and more is uncovered every day. Researchers discovered the endocannabinoid system while attempting to pinpoint exactly how THC produces its effects; THC is the compound found in cannabis which causes the psychoactive effects (the high) associated with marijuana.
What they have learned over the years is that the endocannabinoid system, ECS for short, is a signaling system that allows our cells and organs to communicate with each other in order to balance overall activity and energy consumption. This results in what we call homeostasis: a healthy state of balance within our body.
What is homeostasis?
Homeostasis is internal balance or stability amid changing external conditions.
The term homeostasis is very broad.
It refers to general organism-level factors, like body temperature, which are affected by the external environment.
Homeostasis also refers to specific cellular factors like oxidative stress, which are affected by the activity levels of other cells in the immediate microscopic vicinity.
The endocannabinoid system – a complex, scaled communication network – maintains homeostasis and balance across the different systems of our body.
What Are Endocannabinoids?
Endocannabinoids are chemical messengers.
The word endocannabinoid means “cannabinoid produced inside”; it refers to cannabinoids that are produced inside our bodies.
Endocannabinoids are signalling molecules used by almost all of our cells.
Chemical signals are released by one cell in order to produce some effect in a nearby cell, like when you use a remote control to turn on the TV.
Every chemical signal has a predictable and consistent effect depending on cell-type and chemical environment, just like the power button on your remote turns the TV on, but doesn’t affect the volume or the menu because there are different buttons – neurotransmitters – for those actions. Hormones like estrogen, and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, are all common examples of chemical signals or messengers.
The process of cellular communication involves chemical signals and the receptors which they act on. In the ECS, there are 5 relatively well-known endocannabinoids, although 2-AG and anandamide are the most well-known. Specifically, a cell releases endocannabinoids to alter the activity levels of a nearby cell which is affecting it in some way.
To think of this relationship, imagine a teacher giving information to her students. If she’s going too fast, the students will ask her to slow down.
If the teacher and her students were cells in our body, the endocannabinoid system would be the students’ ability to ask the teacher to slow down. If this ability is hampered in some way, then problems with the students’ understanding will occur.
Similarly, when the ECS fails to allow cells to communicate, health problems arise.
What is endocannabinoid deficiency?
When the ECS becomes overactive or underactive, endocannabinoid tone can no longer promote homeostasis.
Without the ECS to maintain balance, systems of the body begin to malfunction. This condition is called Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD).
CECD leads to many common health problems that seem to arise without cause.
CECD Symptoms Can Include:
- Chronic pain
- Autoimmune disorders
- Depression and other mood disorders
What causes Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency?
CECD occurs when your body loses the ability to maintain a healthy endocannabinoid tone. This can be caused by dietary and lifestyle factors, or other disorders. Cannabis plants produce compounds called phytocannabinoids, which interact with our endocannabinoid system to promote balance and maintain a healthy endocannabinoid tone. Below is an overview of the endocannabinoids that have been discovered so far, and what we know about their activities and responsibilities.