The Endocannabinoid System & The Biology of Wellness

The endocannabinoid system is how cannabis and its many different chemical constituents work and interact with the body in a number of dynamic ways. I believe one of the biggest breakthroughs in biomedical science of the last hundred years has been understanding the receptors with which THC and other cannabinoids interact with the body’s own THC-like molecules-the family of molecules we call endocannabinoid and how they interact with cells, organs, and the entire systems of humans and other animals. We've achieved a very strong understanding of the degree physiology is integrated through the endocannabinoid system. It aids organ systems and signaling systems such as the hormonal and nervous systems, your immune system, and your gut by helping accomplish interactions. These signaling molecules act very much like THC. The molecules, the receptors they act on, the ways they are metabolized, created and broken down, all are grouped into what we call the endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system significantly influences neurological disease. Why is that? Well, the cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoid act on them and how cannabis works, and are very abundant throughout the nervous system. The brain, the spinal cord and the peripheral nerves maintain a safe state of operation in large part by using endocannabinoids and similar molecules to help keep activation at a slow level. The nervous system can get very active and more or less has its own internal rate limiting system. Endocannabinoids help control the rate. Of  major help is the control of inflammation, an essential element of neurological disease. The endocannabinoid system actually evolved to help control inflammation in the body, and there are many different avenues that may encompass. But when it comes to neurological disease, we now know much better then even 20 years ago that everything from Alzheimer’s and motor disorders to new head trauma and consequences of it, are related to neural inflammation. Endocannabinoids and the plant cannabinoids damp that down, and the therapeutic potential are tremendous.

Endocannabinoids are also involved with how the connections between brain cells rearrange and rewire themselves. Those connections, or synapses, and synaptic plasticity (neural plasticity) are how learning and memory work. In the case of a healthy brain, it’s believed new brain cells are born-at least in certain parts of the brain-throughout life. Certain things, such as exercise, promote neurogenesis (the promotion of new brain cells). Animals living in a very enriched social environment (as opposed to a deprived, solitary cave-like cage life) have been found to have increased neurogenesis. It’s believed to also help improve emotional well being, so the endocannabinoid system is very much involved in that. We know  this because if animals did not have cannabinoid receptors, or if blocked by drugs, they do not experience the same level of neurogenesis and regenerative support for the brain.  There’s a whole area of research concerning head injury and stroke, with other kinds of chronic trauma leading to inflammation and cell death, that neuroplasticity and new neuron generation are part of; rebuilding and beneficial therapeutic outcomes.

That Cannabis – both cannabidiol and THC (and perhaps other components) can help stimulate and support neurogenesis (based on good clinical outcomes), is why after a head injury and treatment with CBD oil people have been found to recover far better than expected. I’ve seen this over and over again in my encounters. Animal research supports such findings as well. It’s only a single molecule in controlled animal studies, and we are somewhat limited to how quickly we can expand into human testing and talk about possible medicines.

An important thing to remember is that neurochemicals do not act in isolation. Our brains are not just a collection of chemicals, and if one increases you get “high”. They’re tightly organized networks. However, there is a endocannabinoid-mediated one I like to call a “runner’s joy” or a “runner’s bliss”, if you will, to play with the name of anandamide (meaning bliss). We experimentally measured runners for 30 minutes reaching 50-70 percent of their heart rate. The level of anandamide endocannabinoid in the blood was elevated and closely correlated with their mood. We gave them psychological questionnaires concerning emotional affect and how well they felt, similar to a state of joy and a positive affect of feeling well. Why does exercise make you walk away feeling better, perhaps less depressed? I prefer to think that is what the word “high” infers; an elevated state. Use of that word has become convoluted with more intense psychoactive stimulation, when all we are experiencing is a benefit to mood that comes from exercise.

Human beings evolved to be mobile, to be exercisers, to be endurance runners. Other members of the evolutionary family that we came from – hominids – evolved to be runners and anthropologists have long questioned why the engagement of this kind of behavior. What motivated our hominid ancestors to start running long distances? Part of that answer is the endocannabinoid system being utilized by the brain to feel good and to also to regulate energy. Of course, we have come to understand these metabolic aspects. The endocannabinoids also help to improve how much you enjoy food (often the original object of our running and foraging behavior). They help to store and monitor energy, just as cannabis still promotes it’s now well known “feeding behavior”. Endocannabinoids go up when you exert, which promotes storing of fat deposits and saving energy. By helping to dampen inflammation when living an active lifestyle, there are fewer spare calories for inflammation to occur. We don’t think about it like that often, but it’s a direction I’ve been getting excited about looking into lately. Sedentary modern Western lifestyles are unhealthy, in part, due to increased inflammation risk. If you’re not moving enough to consume daily calories, there is more risk since part of the way calories are burned is through activation of your immune system.

The endocannabinoid system is a robust cellular mechanism. Sometimes we talk about other systems in the body that are very anatomically discrete. For example, I can show you where and how your dopamine neurons project and that’s the dopamine system. However, the endocannabinoid system is integrated throughout the body. It’s a fundamentally cellular mechanism by which cells communicate with their neighbors in order to keep an integrated body functioning. I like to say that discovering the endocannabinoid system (from trying to understand how cannabis works) has also advanced and changed our understanding of the biology of “being well”. What is the biology of “wellness”, of being in homeostatic balance? The endocannabinoid system is not the end-all and be-all, since the elements of the human body is intricately interconnected and complex. The endocannabinoid system is truly a master regulator of this biology and what it means to be well. Referring to the endocannabinoids as master regulators is as mainstream as science gets.

Humans have evolved with the cannabis plant in a mutualistic way for many tens of thousands of years; well before recorded human history. We know this because the earliest human writing includes references cannabis in a medicinal context. I’ve always been excited about what studying cannabis has taught us, specifically what it means to be well and how exercise works, and how we are truly meant to be active, dynamic beings-all part of being healthy. It cannot be minimized how the doors to understanding inflammation, so critical to chronic illness, have been opened by studying the endocannabinoid system. We have co-evolved a system that helps support the endocannabinoid system through plant cannabinoids.

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