The chemical messengers we talked about earlier, the ones that the ECS sends to cool your system down in the fever example, are what we call neurotransmitters. Cannabinoids, both the ones our body produces itself and the ones we get from cannabis, are neurotransmitters. There are hundreds of different neurotransmitters produced by the body for use in the specific systems they’re needed.
Endogenous cannabinoids (or endocannabinoids) are compounds that our body produces itself. Your body creates endocannabinoids with the help of fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are especially important for this, and research in animals has shown a connection between diets low in omega-3s and mood changes caused by poor endocannabinoid regulation. Hemp seeds are a quality source of omega-3, but fish like salmon and sardines produce a form of omega-3s that is easier for your body to use. Nuts and eggs are also good sources of omega-3s. New research has found that omega-3s fatty acids might also provide anti-inflammatory benefits in much the same way as our endocannabinoids and the cannabinoids in hemp and cannabis do.
The two endocannabinoids we know of were discovered by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his colleagues. They are produced “on demand” by nerve cells (called neurons) whenever our ECS needs to kick on to maintain balance. They tell your body when to get certain processes started, and when to stop them. The first endocannabinoid, N-arachidonoylethanolamine (AEA), is more commonly known as anandamide. The second is 2-arachidonoylglycerol, or 2-AG.
When picked up by the specialized cannabinoid receptors that sit on our cells, endocannabinoids give the cell specific directions. It might be to reduce inflammation in your gut or mitigate the pain response when you stub your toe. Regardless of the reason the ECS kicks on, the goal is to help the body get back to a state of homeostasis, and the production of endocannabinoids helps regulate this process. We now understand that by controlling the volume at which neurotransmitters are sent, cannabinoids can impact the length and intensity of the body’s response.
Your ECS, Diet, and Lifestyle
A great way to approach supporting your ECS in general is through diet.A diet that emphasizes greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, and seeds (or a G-BOMB diet) is not only good for your ECS but your body as a whole because these foods are the most nutrient-dense and health-promoting foods on the planet.
Another way to support your ECS is through lifestyle: massage, acupuncture, exercise, and weight control can all upregulate (or enhance) your endocannabinoid system.The effects of stress can deplete the ECS as well, and so active stress management through yoga, meditation, and deep breathing can be beneficial in maintaining a vital system. Moderate- to high-intensity exercise also increases endocannabinoid levels (particularly anandamide) in the body, supporting previous research that has shown exercise has anti-depressant–like effects.
As mentioned, phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids that come from plants. These plant cannabinoids (like THC, CBD) stimulate our cannabinoid receptors and carry out functions similar to our own endogenous anandamide and 2-AG.
THC is the most thoroughly understood phytocannabinoid because its psychoactive effects garnered it the attention it needed to be studied extensively. CBD is a relative newcomer on the “hot topics of cannabis science” list, so we know less about it. There are over 100 other phytocannabinoids present in cannabis just waiting to be understood and studied for their medicinal potential. Phytocannabinoids bind to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors and interact with them in similar ways as anandamide and 2-AG do.
Cannabinoids Are a Natural Defense for Cannabis
Interestingly, the cannabis plant also uses THC and other cannabinoids to promote its own health and prevent disease. Cannabinoids have antioxidant properties that protect the leaves and flowering structures from ultraviolet radiation; they neutralize the harmful free radicals generated by UV rays, protecting the cells. In humans, free radicals cause aging, cancer, and impaired healing. Antioxidants found in plants have long been promoted as natural supplements to prevent free radical harm.
We also know that non-psychoactive phytocannabinoids from other plants, and even other phytochemicals, or active plant compounds like terpenes and flavonoids, can be picked up and utilized by receptors in our endocannabinoid systems.
But unlike our endocannabinoids, there are no enzymes present in the body that can immediately break down phytocannabinoids and, therefore, their effects last much longer. When consuming cannabis-based medicines, the body gets much higher levels of cannabinoids than it can produce itself, thus producing a therapeutic effect. In addition to this, CBD blocks the enzyme that breaks down AEA and THC, which in effect increases our “endocannabinoid tone.”
As described by neurologist and subject expert Dr. Ethan Russo, there is “a hypothesis that all humans have an underlying endocannabinoid tone that is a reflection of the levels of anandamide and 2-AG, their production, metabolism, and the relative abundance and state of cannabinoid receptors.” A compromised endocannabinoid tone may result in illness and disease, including clinical endocannabinoid deficiency.
Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (or CECD) was first proposed by Dr. Ethan Russo in 2004 and more recently investigated by Steele Clark Smith and Mark S. Wagner in 2014. The main idea is simple: When the body does not produce enough endocannabinoids or cannot regulate them properly, you are more susceptible to illnesses that affect one or several of the functions overseen by the endocannabinoid system (see Receptors and Physiology of the ECS). Endocannabinoid deficiencies could be the root cause of many autoimmune disorders like migraines, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). One possible solution might be microdosing. Because small doses of phytocannabinoids can encourage the body to create more naturally occurring endocannabinoids and their receptors, it may be possible to boost our systems and avoid deficiencies with regular small doses of phytocannabinoids like CBD, THC, and CBN. Small doses tend to perturb our CB1 and CB2 receptors with the effect of boosting production of our own natural endocannabinoids.