The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex group of neurotransmitters, receptors that play an important role in many physiological processes.
The endocannabinoid system is a relatively new discovery. Cannabinoid receptors were first detected in the 1980s when researchers investigated the impact of THC on the brain.
Researchers knew of an opioid receptor but had not given thought to the possibility of a cannabinoid receptor. In trying to dish the dirt on THC, researchers accidentally discovered other cannabinoids, the most well-known of which is CBD.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
There's a lot we still don't know about the endocannabinoid system, but we do know that it is made up of neurotransmitters, receptor proteins and enzymes that synthesise and degrade endocannabinoids. There are two main types of receptors, CB1 and CB2.
CB1 receptors are found in the highest concentrations in nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. They are also present in organs such as the spleen, white blood cells, endocrine gland, parts of the reproductive system, the gastrointestinal system and the urinary tract.
CB2 receptors are found in the immune system, including white blood cells, in the tonsils and the spleen.
When endocannabinoids act on their corresponding receptor sites in different regions of our bodies, they can regulate many physiological processes, including pain, appetite, inflammation and immune response.
How do CBD and THC interact with the ECS?
To understand how cannabinoids interact with the ECS, we need to go back to high school biology lessons.
Cells are covered with receptors that allow messages to be passed from outside the cell to trigger reactions. The body produces natural chemicals that help to trigger these responses by binding with receptor sites. For a chemical to bind with a receptor site, it needs to be the same shape.
External factors can also influence this interaction. In pharmacology, drugs capable of interacting with receptor sites can either be agonists, antagonists or inverse agonists.
- An agonist is a drug that binds to a receptor site and produces a similar response to the body's natural chemical.
- An antagonist is a drug that binds to the site but does not activate it. Instead, it temporarily blocks the receptor site.
- An inverse agonist binds to a receptor site as an agonist but also antagonises the effects of an agonist.
That's a lot of new words to learn, so what exactly does this mean?
The human body produces its own endocannabinoids capable of binding to CB1 and CB2 receptors in the ECS as an agonist. Anandamide is one example of an endocannabinoid, but there are others.
THC and CBD are both capable of interacting with the endocannabinoid system.
- THC is a partial agonist at cannabinoid receptor sites, which is why it has psychoactive properties leading to changes in mood, memory and motor control.
- CBD, on the other hand, is an antagonist for CB1 and CB2 receptors. It also inhibits FAAH, which prevents the breakdown of anandamide in the body.
We mentioned earlier that enzymes are involved. FAAH, otherwise known as fatty acid amide hydrolase, is an enzyme that breaks down anandamide when it is no longer needed. By inhibiting this action, the body has more anandamide at its disposal.
Why is the ECS important for our health, and how can we maintain a healthy ECS?
There's a lot we don't know about the endocannabinoid system and how to keep it healthy. We know that the endocannabinoid system is involved with many processes throughout the body. But since there is no test to determine if your ECS is functioning correctly, we have to look at steps to improve our overall health rather than interventions that target the ECS.
Maintaining good health is one way to keep your ECS happy. A varied diet rich in fatty acids, herbs, spices and tea is thought to be beneficial to the ECS.
Getting the right balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may also help to support your ECS. A Western diet is rich in omega-6 fatty acids, as these are present in cooking oils, meat, poultry and eggs. But omega-6 is more challenging to come by. These are found in healthy foods such as flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and oily fish such as anchovies and sardines. Increasing omega-6 and reducing omega-3 is thought to help with anandamide production.
Those who love to indulge in chocolate will be pleased to hear that cacao powder contains compounds that are very similar to endocannabinoids. These compounds help to slow the breakdown of endocannabinoids in your body. So why not try adding a few raw cacao nibs to a smoothie or your morning porridge?
Environmental factors that impact the ECS
Some pesticides are thought to interrupt the endocannabinoid system, so choosing organic produce where possible can help to limit your exposure. However, if you can't find organic fruit and vegetables, or if they're too expensive, make sure you wash your fresh produce well at home.
Soaking your fruits and veggies in a sink filled with cold water and baking soda could be an effective way to get rid of some of the pesticides in your diet.
Plastics are another environmental factor to consider. Many plastics contain phthalates which are chemicals known to block cannabinoid receptors. Phthalates are also present in many tin food container linings. Opting for glass or stainless steel food containers is one way to avoid exposure to these chemicals. And avoid eating food that has been reheated in plastic.
Lifestyle factors that impact the ECS
It isn't only our food choices that can impact the ECS. Stress is also thought to contribute to a healthy ECS. Unfortunately, chronic stress may deplete your ECS, so it's important to look for ways to reduce stress in your life.
Exercise has often been touted as the counter to stress, but the type of exercise makes a big difference. Interestingly, when we engage in exercise that we don't find enjoyable, our bodies interpret this as stress. This has been proven in animal studies.
Choosing activities that you enjoy or incorporating socialising in your exercise could provide greater benefits. So if you hate running but enjoy taking long walks with your friends, the latter may be more beneficial to your ECS.
Supplements that interact with the ECS
CBD is a simple supplement that can help support normal body function with very few known side effects. It is well-tolerated by most people, and it's also very easy to add to your daily routine. You can enjoy CBD as an oil, in gummies, or even as a topical muscle balm.
For more information about CBD, head to our ABC of ailments to learn more.