The Endocannabinoid System: 101
Part 1 of our Blog Series on the Endocannabinoid System.
From Modern Science to Ancient Wisdom.
By Margo Amala & Heather George, DSOM – thelotusway.org
Whether for recreational and/or medicinal purposes, have you ever wondered why cannabis affects you the way it does? In order to answer that question, we need to take a journey beyond cannabis, into to the system that this plant has led us to discover: The Endocannabinoid System (ECS). Modern science is finding out more and more just how critical the roles of this system are to nearly every stage and phase of our existence.
The reason cannabis can have the powerful effects that it does is because it affects a sensitive, intricate, and elegant network in our bodies. This network, The ECS, has a presence in nearly every part of the body, and exists in most animals. In fact, many scientists now consider this network a major body system in its own right.
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) was named to honor a particular group of substances called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids (CBs) are given their name because they are found in more abundance and diversity in the cannabis sativa plant than anywhere else in nature. In fact, the only other place we find abundant and diverse cannabinoids is inside of ourselves and most other animals. Yes, we produce cannabinoids that are very similar in structure to those in cannabis. Even similar to the psychoactive cannabinoid known popularly as THC.
The ECS has a very holistic role in health and well-being: one of it’s primary purposes is helping the body maintain homeostasis. This system comprises the most proliferate network of receptors in our bodies, and unique substances we make that work with those receptors. At this time in science, they have put the ECS receptors into two main categories.
Those classified as CB1 receptors are most abundant in the brain and nervous system and have a major role in neurological functions. CB2 receptors are abundant in our core/gut organs and play a major role in all things related to immunological functioning. Some cells contain both CB1 and CB2 receptors. There are also other receptors now considered part of the ECS. More is being discovered about their locations and roles all the time. These receptors are directly and indirectly influenced by various substances and stimulations, NOT JUST CANNABIS. I break down the things that affect the various ECS receptors into three categories:
- 1. Exo-cannabinoids: Phyto-cannabinoids (pCBs) and synthetic cannabinoids.
As found in cannabis, pCBs are substances that occur in particular plants. Cannabis has (by far) the most diverse and numerous types of pCBs in the plant kingdom. However, scientists are studying other plants that contain cannabinoids. Helichrysum, a plant known for its healing properties, contains the cannabinoid CBG. And there are many plants that contain the terpene BCP (Beta CaryoPhyllene) such as: cinnamon, hops, cloves, black pepper, cacao, flax, kava, echinacea, and many more. Many scientists now consider BCP a cannabinoid that binds to CB2 receptors.
In addition to pCBs, the pharmaceutical industry has created synthetic cannabinoids. Marinol and Epidiolex for example.
An important point to mention (and maybe go into detail about in another blog) is that plants containing pCBs also have many other compounds that work synergistically with the pCBs. Some of these compounds fall into another category discussed here. But, even the plant substances that don’t necessarily interact with the ECS can play a important role on how the pCBs and terpenes do interact. There is a theory in ECS studies called the Entourage Effect.
It is beginning to get more attention, and has special relevance when discussing the ECS from a classical medical perspective. Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines recognize the individual strengths of plants, giving due respect to how we can combine the effects and modify them according to which parts are used, as well as through careful preparation and blending with other herbs. In this way they aim for ultimate effectiveness. The new trend of isolating CBs and creating synthetic CBs does not consider the Entourage Effect or synergistic theories of herbal medicine.
- 2. Endo-cannabinoids (eCBs)
These are substances that we produce ourselves. They are present from the moment of conception. In fact, without them, conception is not possible. They are in a mother’s breast milk, helping in the development of infants’ immunological and nervous systems. One of the first eCBs that was discovered was given a name that acknowledges its ability to help us feel euphoric. It is called ‘anandamide.’ Ananda is an ancient sanskrit word that means ‘bliss.’
We have more ECS receptors in our brains for anandamide than we do for any other substance (dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, etc). Just like the pCBs, each eCB has unique roles in the ECS. Over time, many of us end up with either deficiencies or in some cases excess production of eCBs. This is where it is sometimes helpful to supplement with pCBs, like cannabis. However, there are also other substances and practices that can help regulate our ECS. That is where the next category comes in.
- 3. Cannabimimetics
I know it is a tricky word. But it is a very important one, so practice it. Say it out loud three times right now (whisper if you are in school or at the office so people don’t think you are crazy).
CA-NNA-BI-MI-ME-TIC… CANNABI-MIMETIC… CANNABIMIMETIC… !
This is a category that contains other substances that do not seem to directly interact with the CB receptors like cannabinoids do, but still have significant and measurable influence on this system, especially when combined with the other CB substances in their respective plants. This category also covers activities that we perform which are now proving to play a role in regulating this system. Yes, we now know that certain practices will increase or decrease the functionality of our ECS, and therefore our overall health and well-being.
As a doctor of science in Oriental medicine and yoga therapist, this is one of the most exciting aspects of this system. It shows that integrating herbal medicine with practices like meditation, yoga, qi gong, acupuncture, and spending time in nature is one of the best ways to bring this system into balance. And science is learning that once this system is in balance, all of our other systems follow suit.
Understanding how to bring this system into balance is now the focus of a fast growing community of researchers and physicians. We are really just beginning to understand the myriad of ways to diagnose and treat imbalances of the ECS. My work is focused on this research and discovering connections to Acupuncture and Oriental Medicines’ network model that has been used for thousands of years to diagnose and treat functions (and dysfunctions) now attributed to the ECS.
For most of that time, the cannabis plant was considered superior among the medicinal herbs. Oriental medicine rarely uses single herbs. Instead, combinations were carefully combined in formulas and prescribed along with acupuncture treatments, exercises like meditation and Qi Gong, and adjustments to diet and lifestyle. I believe this holistic approach to treating individuals shows the refined understanding these ancient physicians had for this delicate, elegant, and intricate network of receptors and substances (both endogenous and exogenous) that interact and determine our state of health as we navigate life. I believe they were masters of regulating the ECS.
It is exciting to see how fast modern science is now advancing since discovering this system less than 30 years ago. It is also disconcerting to see how much suppression and resistance still exists that is slowing our progress, mainly because of the continued stigma around cannabis. Regardless, it is time for us to not only put an end to that stigma, but also to honor the historical discovery this plant led us to; the existence of a system within us that is capable of self-regulating and helping bring every other body system into balance.
So, whether you are reading this three-part blog series because of your interest in cannabis for recreational or medical purposes, please take a moment to consider that what you are really curious about is how this plant (and many other things) are stimulating the CB receptors in your body. What a powerful role this system plays in our lives!