Cannabidiol, commonly referred to as CBD, is a well-known active ingredient in medicinal hemp and cannabis extracts. While CBD and psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) get most of the attention, cannabis plants contain a rich variety of medicinal compounds, like cannabigerol (CBG), cannabinol, and cannabichromen. Incredibly, there are more than 120 cannabinoids found in hemp alone, many of which we know little about. Research is just now uncovering the complex interactions between naturally-occurring cannabinoids and the human body, revealing the biochemical interactions behind the health-promoting properties of cannabis. Inside the body, cannabinoids interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system, or ECS.
So what is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?
ECS physiology is not typically covered in traditional training for health-care providers, though this remarkable system plays a vital role in maintaining balance, or homeostasis. The ECS is made up of countless molecules and functions by binding and breaking cannabinoids down into active forms through enzymatic degradation. Once inside the body, cannabinoids interact with two ECS receptors: CB1 and CB2 as well as two metabolic enzymes: FAAH and MAGL. These components are concentrated in the brain and spinal chord (central nervous system), peripheral nervous system, and the immune system, and are also found across all cell types, like skin cells, smooth muscle, blood vessels, skeletal cells, and endocrine glands. The ECS system is not unique to humans — all mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians, and birds have a similar system, and scientists estimate the ECS first evolved over 500 million years ago.
By activating cannabinoids, the ECS plays a complex role in neural signaling that affects the nervous system, the immune system, the hormonal system, and other organs. Research into this signaling process suggests the ECS serves as a link between the body and mind, fine-tuning pathways involved in homeostasis. The ECS is involved in many important physiological processes, including mood, sleep, metabolism, stress response, pain, immunity, and hormone balance.
Homeostasis: maintaining physiologic balance
Every day, our body is constantly responding to changing stimuli, like temperature fluctuations, hunger, thirst, and stress. The central and peripheral nervous system actively regulate the body to maintain a state of balance through changing conditions, which involves constant feedback between the body and mind. For instance, if you stepped outside into freezing, snowy weather wearing shorts and a t-shirt, the central nervous system will actively respond by telling the blood vessels to constrict — conserving heat around organs — and will also trigger a shivering reflex in an attempt to generate heat. This physiologic response is coordinated by cascades of neural signals, and sometimes this signaling becomes hyperactive, resulting in over-stimulation and imbalance. This is where the ECS comes into play. Activated endocannabinoids are sent to the hyperactive neuron, where they bind the CB1 receptor, causing the hyper neuron cell to relax. This corrective action is called a retrograde signal, where information flows from the ECS to the neurons involved, moving against the usual direction of information flow, which is from the brain to a specific neuron.
Hyper-active responses are common across different physiologic systems, including the immune system. Most cold symptoms, like fever, runny nose, and a scratchy throat, are directly caused by the inflammatory response mediated by immune cells. The inflammatory process delivers germ-fighting white blood cells to the area of infection, and plays a critical role in stopping infection. However, a prolonged inflammatory response can become destructive to the body’s own tissues. The ECS releases endocannabinoids that tamp down excessive immune inflammation, limiting cross-damage and restoring homeostasis.
These are a few examples of how the ECS actively maintains balance. As further research uncovers the complex dynamics between cannabinoid-containing plants and the ECS, our understanding of the this unique physiology will continue to expand. While hemp is especially rich in beneficial cannabinoids, these compounds are found in a variety of foods, including fish oil, chia seeds, walnuts, flax, broccoli, kale, and cinnamon. Another good reason to enjoy a primarily plant-based diet rich in organic foods and herbs!
Disclaimer: This page contains general information about health, diet, lifestyle, and nutrition. Any information provided should not be considered or treated as medical advice and always consult a medical professional before making any lifestyle changes. Products and information mentioned on the Sprig blog are not intended to be used as a substitute for medical diagnosis, advice, or treatment.