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The Endocannabinoid System: A Bridge Between Body And Mind

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Jessilyn Dolan 15 Jan 2020

According to UCLA’s taxonomic investigation, the mammalian endocannabinoid system (ECS) evolved over 500 million years ago. But it wasn’t until the late 1900s that humans discovered the ECS. The Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, first mentioned the ECS in the September 2005 edition – over 15 years after its discovery in 1988. 

Since that first mention in 2005, things have changed. As of 2015, a PubMed google search for “cannabis”  and “cannabinoid,” show an average of more than two scientific publications per day over the last 20 years! 

Cannabinoid receptor proteins can be found throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems – including the brain.

So what is the ECS?

Defined by Wikipedia, the endocannabinoid system is a biological system composed of endocannabinoids, which are basically neurotransmitters, that bind to cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoid receptor proteins can be found throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems – including the brain.

We know the ECS plays a role in regulating a wide range of functions and processes including:

  • Sleep
  • Mood and stress
  • Appetite and metabolism
  • Learning and memory
  • Reproduction and fertility

“The endocannabinoid system, with its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and all of the body’s organs, is literally a bridge between body and mind…allowing communication and coordination.” 

The ECS is also linked to:

  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammation and other immune system responses
  • Motor control
  • Cardiovascular system function
  • Muscle formation
  • Bone remodeling and growth
  • Liver function
  • Skin and nerve function

These functions all contribute to homeostasis, which basically means a relatively stable state of health and equilibrium in the body. And while experts are still trying to fully understand the ECS, they generally agree that maintaining homeostasis is a primary role.

According to Dr. Dustin Sulak, “Cannabinoids promote homeostasis at every level of biological life, from the sub-cellular, to the organism, and perhaps to the community and beyond. The endocannabinoid system, with its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and all of the body’s organs, is literally a bridge between body and mind…allowing communication and coordination.” 

Some researchers theorize that CBD prevents endocannabinoids from being broken down, while others believe that CBD binds to a receptor yet to be discovered.

The ECS has several components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.

Endocannabinoids (also called endogenous cannabinoids), are molecules or chemicals made by your body. Two well-studied endocannabinoids are:

  • Anandamide (AEA) – also known as the “bliss molecule”
  • 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG)

Endocannabinoids bind to EC receptors, including:

  • CB1 receptors in the central nervous system
  • CB2 receptors, in your peripheral nervous system, particularly the immune system

Anandamide and 2AG can bind to either receptor. 

There are two main Enzymes responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids.  

  • Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down AEA
  • Monoacylglycerol acid lipase (MAG lipase), which typically breaks down 2-AG

Synthetic cannabinoids are chemicals made in a laboratory, designed to mimic endocannabinoids and or phytocannabinoids, which have been extracted from the cannabis plant. There are 3 FDA-approved synthetic cannabinoid products available by prescription: Marinol®, Syndros®, and Cesamet.

ECS is also said to work in retrograde, meaning that its signals move in the opposite direction from other neurotransmitters in the body.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of hundreds of cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, and arguably the most well known and researched cannabinoid to date.  THC binds to both CB 1 and CB2, whereas CBD does not bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors the way THC does. 

Some researchers theorize that CBD prevents endocannabinoids from being broken down, while others believe that CBD binds to a receptor yet to be discovered.

ECS is also said to work in retrograde, meaning that its signals move in the opposite direction from other neurotransmitters in the body. Typically, neurotransmitters move through synapses from the rest of the body towards the brain. Every neuron receives the signal, reacts to it, and passes it on to the next neuron. In the experience of pain, for example, the more intense the pain, the more frequently the neurons fire. 

The endocannabinoid signaling moves in the opposite direction, towards the neuron. So when the body is experiencing pain, the neurons send pain signals to the brain. The brain then sends endocannabinoids to bind with the neurons. This binding keeps the neurons busy, reducing the frequency with which they send pain signals. 

Some humans genetically lack a robust ECS, while others find they need ECS support later in, or at varying times in life. In addition to consuming cannabis, other ways to support your endocannabinoid system include:

  • Social interaction 
  • Unstructured playtime
  • Meditation and breathing
  • Enjoyable exercise
  • Yoga
  • Body work

Dietary suggestions for supporting your ECS include:

  • Increasing Omega 3s such as hemp seed and hemp oil 
  • Decrease alcohol consumption
  • Increasing the consumption of herbs like echinacea and turmeric
  • Treat yourself to chocolate – preferably dark – and cacao powder
  • Eat organic as often as possible
  • Avoid plastic

Jessilyn Dolan, RN, is a nurse educator and consultant for medicinal cannabis, maternal child health, substance and opioid use and mental health disorders. She is the co-owner of NurseGrown Organics-Vermont Hemp and CBD, a proud Clean Green certified H.E.M.P.  farmer, experienced herbalist and massage therapist. Jessilyn co-owns HomeGrown Consulting, is a cultivating cannabis caregiver and medical marijuana patient, and is the founder of the Vermont Cannabis Nurses Association.

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