If you’re unfamiliar with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), you are in for a mind-blowing learning experience.
The ECS is this amazing network of cell-level receptors positioned throughout your entire body.
These receptors, called cannabinoid receptors, are among the most abundant protein receptors in the brain, and you can also find these receptors in your organs, your skin, your bones, and connective tissues.
Also found throughout your body are the cannabinoid receptors’ counterpart: endocannabinoids. These cannabinoids produced by your body bind with the CB receptors to complete a neurotransmission process that affects almost every part of your body.
The goal, however, is always the same: to achieve homeostasis or balance in nearly every one of your metabolic processes.
Dr. Dustin Sulak describes the ECSas “perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”
Cannabis, by the way, just happens to be a great supplement for this crucial system in our bodies.
The more you learn about the ECS, the more you'll understand why cannabis can treat so many different illnesses.
Here are 9 key questions and answers about the ECS to help you get a better understanding.
#1) Which metabolic processes does the ECS help regulate?
As Dr. Sunil Aggarwal pointed out during the Cannabis Health Summit, the ECS plays a role in processes such as:
Muscle tone and movement
Extinction of traumatic memory
Protection of nerves and brain tissue
Baby breast-feeding reward
And many others
One place in your body where you DON'T have CB receptors, however, is your brain stem, which is why it's impossible to have a lethal overdose on cannabis.
#2) Why is the ECS named after cannabis?
When scientists first discovered the ECS in the late 1980s, they did so by observing how THC interacted with the body. They saw how the THC molecule was binding with all these receptors in our brain and soon discovered them throughout most of the body.
This led to the discovery of the endocannabinoids, and now we’re learning more about things like endocannabinoid deficiency and other dysfunctions susceptible in the ECS, and how we can use cannabis, nutrition, and exercise to help keep the system healthy.
Simply put, we may not have ever discovered this all-important system in our bodies if it weren’t for cannabis.
#3) What does the ECS actually look like?
The ECS is a cellular-level system, which means you can’t see it with the naked eye.
However, if you were to shrink yourself down to molecular size, you’d see that these protein-based cannabinoid receptors are positioned on the very surface of your cells.
Martin Lee of Project CBD does a great job at describing this in his article about the discovery of the ECS, writing how the cannabinoid receptor “consists of 472 amino acids strung together in a crumpled chain that squiggles back and forth across the cell membrane seven times.”
He continues: “Cannabinoid receptors function as subtle sensing devices, tiny vibrating scanners perpetually primed to pick up biochemical cues that flow through fluids surrounding each cell.”
#4) How do cannabinoids interact with the ECS exactly?
Cannabinoids act both directly and indirectly on our cannabinoid receptors (also known as CB receptors).
Some cannabinoids can act as agonists, which means they activate certain receptors. Other cannabinoids can act as antagonists – essentially deactivating receptors.
If the ECS is not functioning properly, the right combination and amount of cannabinoids can help supplement the system and get all those signals to work properly.
More of this signal, less of that signal. Your body is an ongoing symphony of processes and the ECS is a common tool these processes use to stay in tune.
#5) Do terpenes also interact with the ECS?
The current understanding is that terpenes generally do not interact with the ECS but rather other parts of your physiology.
The exception would be beta-caryophyllene (also found in black pepper).
This finding would suggest that the terpene beta-caryophyllene is actually a cannabinoid!
#6) Is consuming too much cannabis harmful to your endocannabinoid system?
In the short-term, cannabis can definitely interfere with your ECS – if you’re over consuming.
Remember, the ECS is all about balance. Tipping it too far in either direction can have adverse effects.
It’s also helpful to recognize that cannabis is a biphasic substance.
This means, for example, if you use it for nausea it can help you, but if you take too much it could make your nausea worse.
Same thing when you use cannabis for things like anxiety, depression, pain etc.
The 'tone' or the 'temperature' of your ECS signaling becomes too loud when you use too much cannabis for your specific physiology.
Secondly, heavy cannabis use will likely raise your tolerance over a short period of time, requiring larger doses for the desired effects.
As your tolerance increases your CB receptors are essentially down-regulating. They’re not as cannabinoid-hungry anymore and so they become less pronounced.
When this happens the benefits of cannabis can decrease substantially.
A 48-hour break at the minimum is usually enough for the CB receptors to reset themselves, and you can resume with smaller doses of cannabis and increased benefits.
#7) Does frequent cannabis use have any long-term effects on the ECS?
It’s a good question and there is no precise answer yet thanks to all those restrictions on cannabis research.
We do however have a study that followed cannabis consumers around for 20 years and found the only negative effect on health was increased risk for periodontal disease (perhaps due to dry mouth side effect).
Sounds like an otherwise healthy endocannabinoid system.
We also know that aside from cannabis’s remarkable safety profile, regular cannabis consumers are less likely to experience diabetes or obesity, which is one example of how this plant can contribute to overall health and wellness.
And it’s not uncommon to find people in their 70s or 80s who have been consuming cannabis for 40+ years.
Having said that, there is still a lot of research opportunity here.
#8) Are there other ways to take care of the endocannabinoid system?
Yes! Your ECS requires vigorous exercise every day and strong nutrition.
We’re now learning how spices like turmeric can bolster the ECS, same as essential fatty acids.
#9) When will the ECS be further integrated into medical school curricula?
Few medical schools are teaching the ECS and quite briefly at that, like 3 pages of text.
It’s such an essential aspect of health and wellness, so you have to wonder what gives?
Some people suggest that medical schools are controlled by Big Pharma and Big Med and officially recognizing the ECS would also force them to recognize the legitimacy of cannabis as a medicine.
Other people believe medical schools veer away from the ECS because of the federal ban on cannabis.
Either way, it’s a shame when politics and business get in the way of education and public health.
The ECS is just the beginning. Now you can get certified in Cannabis Fundamentals!
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