The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a somewhat recently discovered bodily system. The reason you’ve probably never heard of it is that research really only started to pick up steam in the second half of the last century. By the late 1980s, several labs confirmed the existence of cannabinoid receptors throughout our body’s nervous system, and in 1990 and 1993, the CB1 and CB2 receptors were successfully cloned, respectively.
The early research in the 1960s and 1970s first came about as researchers were trying to understand how and why marijuana affected us the way it does. If you think this seems a bit late, you have to understand that even the human opiate receptor was only discovered in 1973, despite the fact that opioids had been a key part of modern, mainstream medicine for over a hundred years prior.
It was found that these newly discovered receptors carry information about the state of your body and how to correct many things that are wrong. When they bind with a receptor, it triggers the appropriate response. Depending on what the issue is, either a CB1 or CB2 receptor will be triggered.
CB1 receptors are essential for a healthy functioning brain and are one of the most common receptors in the entire nervous system. They are found especially concentrated in the central nervous system areas of the brain and spinal cord. Depending on what region of the brain they are located in, they can be moderators of your memory, mood, motor function, or your perception of pain.
CB2 receptors are most often found in the peripheral nervous system. Specifically, on the cells of our immune system. This allows them to help moderate and respond to inflammation and our immune response to pathogens. If you use CBD products to combat conditions of an overactive immune system (i.e. arthritis, asthma, allergies, autoimmune disorders or digestive issues like inflammatory bowel disease), those are your CB2 receptors hard at work.
Why Do We Have Cannabinoid Receptors?
Once the cannabinoid receptors were discovered, the question for scientists became, “why does our body have these receptors?” Until the 1990s, researchers and scientists had largely worked backward, starting with THC and tracing its metabolic pathways until they discovered this unknown biochemical communication system essentially attached to our nervous system.
The puzzling thing, however, was that why would our bodies have developed this communication highway solely for this seemingly random plant and the chemical compounds found within it? Well, the answer is, it didn’t. Although cannabinoid compounds from hemp and marijuana plants can interact with, modify, and help regulate the ECS, it is, in fact, its own self-contained system that produces its own cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids.
Endocannabinoids, also called endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules made by your body. They’re similar to cannabinoids, but they’re produced by your body. So far, researchers have identified two key endocannabinoids:
- Anandamide (AEA)
- 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)
Since its discovery, the research on the system has expanded rapidly. Now we understand that the endocannabinoid system is responsible for maintaining many of our normal bodily functions – everything from helping to maintain healthy bone density (as found in a study with mice and the previously mentioned “knockout mice”) to naturally preventing diabetes. Some would even argue that the ECS is one of the most important systems (if not the most important) in our bodies because it is responsible for maintaining homeostasis, or balance across all our different organ systems.
Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome
As we begin to more and more understand the importance of endocannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system, we are also better understanding the health problems that can result if it is not functioning properly. Put simply, if your endocannabinoid system is out-of-whack, your whole body could be at risk for a range of health issues.
Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD) is a condition where an individual produces a lower amount of cannabinoids than medical professionals consider to be essential in the promotion of health, vitality, and well-being. This is theorized to be similar to the way neurotransmitter deficiencies are behind other illnesses—like serotonin deficiency in depression.
Although in-depth research is still in its infancy, a theory that is gaining steam is that a lack of a sufficient number of endocannabinoids might be the causes behind health conditions ranging from irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraines, and other treatment resistant syndromes. The reason that a malfunctioned ECS may cause such varying health issues is because this biochemical communication network is present in nearly every bodily system.
Evidence for Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome
This theory was first posed by Dr. Russo and he has published several papers on the topic since 2001. In his 2016 paper, he discusses a study finding that statistically significant differences of the endocannabinoid anandamide were recorded for migraine sufferers. The same study found that there was a decrease in ECS activity for sufferers or PTSD. Furthermore, clinical data has shown that cannabinoid treatment aimed at improving ECS function produced evidence for decreased pain and improved sleep.
Dr. Russo wrote in the paper, “If endocannabinoid function were decreased, it follows that a lowered pain threshold would be operative, along with derangements of digestion, mood, and sleep among the almost universal physiological systems subserved by the endocannabinoid system (ECS).”
Research published in the Neuroendocrinology Letters reviewed scientific publications that explored the concept of Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome and its relation to migraines. This research found that the endocannabinoid called anandamide controls the receptors associated with migraines and that it also strongly influences the periaqueductal gray matter, the region known as the “migraine generator” in the brain.
This study also found that cannabinoids block spinal, peripheral, and gastrointestinal actions that lead to pain associated with headaches, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and other conditions.
Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome and CBD
The implication of all this is that if you can boost the levels of endocannabinoids, specifically, the anandamide endocannabinoid, you may be able to relieve the symptoms of these different conditions, and possibly the conditions themselves. This is where CBD comes in.
Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome essentially gets us to the crux of why THC and CBD may produce such palpable positive changes in our bodies. If, for whatever reason, our body is endocannabinoid deficient, then external cannabinoids come in to the rescue and pick up the slack. That’s the theory at least.
One of the ways CBD accomplishes this is by inhibiting the fatty acid amide hydrolase, which is known to boost levels of anandamide in the body. In addition to CBD, it’s important to note that eating right, exercise, and getting enough sleep are also thought to boost endocannabinoid levels, which, in turn, can help alleviate the health conditions we mentioned.
New information is constantly being produced by studies and clinical trials concerning both the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoids like CBD and THC. The more we understand how the ECS affects our bodies, along with a better understanding of how CBD affects the endocannabinoid system, the more effective CBD dosing and treatment will become.