Have you ever been locked out of your house? Most of us have a spare key hidden somewhere: under a planter, with the neighbor, etc. When it comes to understanding the role of cannabis in helping to mend and protect our bodies, it helps to think of cannabinoids as nature’s “spare key” to unlock the endocannabinoid system.
First, let’s quickly review the role of the endocannabinoid system. The ECS is a vast network of molecules and receptors throughout the body. They work to promote homeostasis and healing. Imagine these receptors as thousands of little locks and the molecules (called endocannabinoids) as the keys.
In order to promote balance and healing, your body is constantly producing endocannabinoids to lock and unlock these receptors. The endocannabinoid system works naturally to prevent and repair damage. For example, after a head injury there is an excessive amount of glutamate, which, in excess, can damage neurons. This is called excitotoxicity. Because the glutamate neurotransmitter is a stimulatory neurotransmitter, it causes excitation in the next neuron as opposed to inhibition. This means that it is signaling the neuron to “fire.”
If you have too much glutamate in your brain, you are prone to excitotoxicity. When patients have a brain injury, their glutamate levels go up and neuron damage occurs due to the excess amounts of glutamate. This causes an increase in acetylcholine and leads to excessive levels of anxiousness, fear, insomnia, restlessness, and more, making it imperative that we find a way to bring those levels back down.
The endocannabinoid system has a natural response built in to reduce the damage. There is a spike in anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2AG) – which are the two primary endocannabinoid molecules. These molecules work to reduce the amount of glutamate being produced, naturally protecting your brain from incurring initial or further damage.
Both phyto- and synthetic cannabinoids can bind to the ECS receptors, altering neural communication via neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, GABA, dopamine, and serotonin. Disrupted activity of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain, for instance, directly impairs processes such as learning, memory, restful sleep, and other cognitive functions. In fact, many dementia symptoms are linked to disruption in acetylcholine (neuro-muscular) activity. This neurotransmitter is a primary target of current dementia medications.
But sometimes, our bodies are unable to produce the endocannabinoids that we need. Lifestyle, nutrition, lack of sleep and environmental toxins can all lead to dysfunction of the ECS. When the ECS fails to perform properly, our bodies can quickly fall out of balance resulting in a host of illnesses and disease. It’s like getting locked out of your house, but with much higher stakes.
Cannabis and the ECS
Cannabis works differently than many other herbs and botanicals. That’s because this plant mimics the molecules produced by our own body to activate the endocannabinoid system. They’re like spare keys that nature has given us – and they fit perfectly into our ECS receptors.
Researchers believe that the underlying cause of many ailments, particularly those related to the immune system and inflammation, could be a disorder referred to as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency.
The theory of clinical endocannabinoid deficiency suggests that in some cases the body doesn’t produce enough endocannabinoids or enough receptors for the endocannabinoid system to function properly. As a result, the many functions aren’t regulated properly and the body becomes unbalanced, allowing diseases to arise.
Renowned cannabinoid researcher Dr. Ethan Russo first proposed the theory of clinical endocannabinoid deficiency in 2004. In a study, published in Neuroendocrinology Letters, Russo suggested that deficient cannabinoid levels might explain why some conditions develop.
Russo had examined the available literature and found evidence that people diagnosed with certain conditions had lower levels of endocannabinoids. He suggested that a person being deficient in endocannabinoids and/or cannabinoid receptors could explain why supplementing with cannabinoids found in plants like hemp were proving effective at alleviating some conditions.
“Migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and related conditions display common clinical, biochemical and pathophysiological patterns that suggests an underlying clinical endocannabinoid deficiency that may be suitably treated with cannabinoid medicines,” Russo concluded in his research review.
Cannabinoids found in plants like hemp, including cannabidiol (CBD), are analogous to the endocannabinoids naturally produced by the body. Research shows that they interact with the cannabinoid receptors of the endocannabinoid system to elicit chemical responses that help bring about homeostasis.
A deficiency in endocannabinoids has been linked to several other disorders besides migraine, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating the release of neurotransmitters, so diseases that are attributed to their dysfunction, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, may be related to clinical endocannabinoid deficiency.
But cannabis has the ability to supplement and aid in correcting this deficiency. This allows our bodies to recalibrate and get back into homeostasis/balance. Of all the chemicals in the known universe, cannabis has a unique and widespread ability to interact with the ECS to promote health. It’s nature’s spare key for unlocking the body’s most powerful regulatory system.
In herbal medicine, the whole plant is used to obtain maximum healing benefits. As with other medicinally rich plants, in cannabis each part has a role to play. These constituents interact within the body to bring back homeostasis and naturally stimulate healing from within. Rather than trying to get a quick fix with a pill (which may result in a host of negative side effects), this process slowly helps the body heal in a way that promotes ongoing and overall positive health.
Cannabis is filled with at least 140 + known cannabinoids with more being routinely discovered. The first, CBD, was only identified in 1940, followed by the discovery of THC by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his research team. CBG was discovered in 1964.
That said, cannabinoids are not unique to the cannabis plant. Just as there are many sources of Vitamin D, there are other sources of cannabinoids. Two examples are raw cacao and black pepper. Both contain cannabinoids that interact with the endocannabinoid system. The benefit of cannabis is the sheer number of cannabinoids and the ease with which the body uses them.
However, cannabinoids are not the only beneficial molecules found within the cannabis plant; there are other beneficial parts like terpenes and flavonoids. In simple terms, terpenes and flavonoids are both phytochemicals, or plant chemicals. Terpenes give the plant its smell while flavonoids give it its taste. And both have medicinal benefits. In general, cannabis cultivars (formerly known as “strains”) contain far more of these phytochemicals than hemp (which generally have less than 0.3% THC).
In cannabis, one reason these terms receive more attention is because of the realization that certain methods of processing of the plant material causes the loss of many terpenes, flavonoids, and other medicinal value of the plant. Heating the flower by smoking or burning it causes a loss of not only terpenes and flavonoids, but also many of the cannabinoids with lower boiling points. Many other extraction processes also cause cannabis to lose valuable medicinal terpenes and flavonoids.
As we learn about the incredible value of this plant medicine, we realize how important each component is. The true power comes when these and all the cannabinoids work together rather than in isolation.
Thanks to the many different varieties of cannabis available today, you can choose the right formulation, dose, and delivery method to customize your experience based on your specific needs. Whether produced from within or derived from the cannabis plant, cannabinoids help regulate many different parts of our well-being and mediate our bodies and minds to promote balance.
Here’s to Health!