Our bodies are beautifully and brilliantly designed things, but like every fine piece of machinery, they need to be cared for and kept up in order to keep operating at maximum efficiency.
That’s where the endocannabinoid system comes in.
What Is The Endocannabinoid System?
The phrase is long, and could be a bit intimidating, so it’s sometimes better to break it down.
Endocannabinoid starts with endo, which is short for endogenous, the Greek word meaning something that originates from within. The second half of the word may be slightly more recognizable: cannabinoid, which refers to a cannabis-like substance. (Cannabis, of course, is the type of plant that produces both CBD and THC.)
Put together, endocannabinoid system describes a system within us that helps create and deliver cannabis-like substances throughout our body.
If you’re surprised that scientists named an entire bodily system after its ability to manufacture something similar to cannabis, that’s because the endocannabinoid system (or ECS, for short) was discovered long after the plant. In fact, the ECS wasn’t first identified until the 1990s, when researchers were finally allowed some permission to start studying the physical effects of marijuana on the human body.
And the results of that research – which is ongoing today – is nothing short of incredible.
What Does the Endocannabinoid System Do?
To imagine what the endocannabinoid system does in the body, it’s helpful to imagine a more familiar machine: The car.
Getting a car to run at maximum efficiency – or, indeed, to run at all – requires the cooperation of a number of interconnecting systems, from the engine and fuel system to the transmission and electronics; and from the suspension and braking system to the lubrication system.
And speaking of lubrication – oil is just one of the many fluids a car also requires to keep these systems running. It also calls for coolant, gasoline, braking fluid and even windshield wiper fluid, among others, all of which must be kept at or around certain levels to ensure everything works together.
Our bodies work in a similar way: They employ an intricate mix of interdependent systems to keep us running at top health – with each system requiring its own levels of certain substances (mostly hormones or other chemical compounds created by the body) in order to run the way they’re intended.
To continue with the extended analogy, the endocannabinoid system would function, in this case, like the gauges or indicators built into a car, such as the gas gauge or coolant light, which help us understand what’s going on under the hood and elsewhere. The ECS keeps a constant eye on those internal gauges, to see how all our internal systems are functioning and make sure none are running too hot or too cold.
But the endocannabinoid system actually plays double-duty in this metaphor. It not only acts as the internal gauges, signaling which levels or temperatures our various bodily systems are running at, it plays the mechanic, as well – moving in to help fix a problem once it detects that one of these levels is off.
In more scientific terms, this is called maintaining homeostasis – that is, a state of internal stability, or as close to it as we can get. And as a more balanced inside helps us survive in a less-predictable world, maintaining homeostasis is a crucial aspect of our survival, and an imperative goal of our bodies.
How Does The Endocannabinoid System Work?
The endocannabinoid system operates through three major components:
· ECS receptors, which work as the messengers between body and brain.
· Endocannabinoids, which do the actual work.
· Enzymes, which are activated after the endocannabinoids fix the problem.
Endocannabinoid system receptors are plentiful, and found throughout the body. There are two known types of ECS receptors, including:
· CB1 receptors: found mostly in the central nervous system, which operates in the brain and spinal cord.
· CB2 receptors: found mostly in the immune system and peripheral nervous system, which connects the brain and spinal cord to muscles and organs.
The way they all work together essentially starts with endocannabinoids. The free-floating molecules are the ones tasked with keeping an eye on things – and when they notice a problem, they’ll bond with the closest ECS receptor to call for help.
More endocannabinoids are then dispatched to help correct the problem, whether it be activating sweat glands to help bring our temperature down or making our stomach growl to remind us that our body needs more fuel.
Once the kink is worked out and balance is restored, the ECS sends out a team of enzymes to help break down any extra endocannabinoids that were created to help deal with the problem.
The entire mechanism is an exquisite example of balance, and extremely precise: ECS receptors work to ensure all responses are localized. That is to say, an issue with our digestive system will be dealt with exclusively, without impacting our immune system, endocrine system or anything else in our body.
And the immediate enzyme demolition of the helper cells also helps ensure stasis, by avoiding a scenario where the excess endocannabinoids pile up and start pushing us too far in the other direction.
Such exactitude also requires a huge network of receptors, and indeed, the ECS is one of the most expansive systems in the body, scientists are increasingly finding.
A short list of the bodily functions the endocannabinoid system helps regulate includes:
· Inflammation/other immune system responses.
· Motor control.
· Learning and memory.
· Cardiovascular system functions.
· Reproductive system functions.
· Stress responses.
· Skin and nerve functions.
· Muscle formation.
· Bone growth.
· Liver function.
The ECS truly seems to have eyes everywhere.
How The ECS Works With CBD
Cannabidiol – or CBD, as its more commonly known – has seen its popularity explode over recent years, as more research has been conducted on the compound and claims over its health benefits have poured in. Everything from reduced anxiety to increased sleep to better digestion and aid with muscle aches has been attributed to the regular consumption of CBD
To many, that may sound like a suspiciously wide-range of benefits. But part of the beauty of CBD is that it works directly with the endocannabinoid system, giving it access to the same wide range of bodily functions the ECS is in charge of regulating.
Scientists still aren’t sure about the exact dynamics of the relationship between CBD and the ECS, but some early research has shown the partnership to be almost entirely positive. And not just CBD but nearly all cannabinoids – including tetrahydrocannabinol (otherwise known as THC, or the chemical responsible for getting people high after smoking marijuana) – have been found to interact with the ECS in some way, whether by helping to stimulate or strengthen the system or increase its sensitivity to problems occurring within the body.
It’s truly amazing how much impact such tiny organisms can have.