Another important function of the endocannabinoid system is in the scavenging of oxygen free radicals. Its effect on scavenging oxygen free radicals is applicable to all disease processes, meaning the ECS holds the keys for understanding and treating the extremely wide and diverse range of human disease.
So, what is a free radical? Free radicals are well-described by Dr. Andrew Weil, a world-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, on his personal website: they are “electronically unstable atoms or molecules capable of stripping electrons from any other molecules they meet in an effort to achieve stability.” Molecules are made up of atoms, and atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which live in a balanced state of neutrality.
Under normal circumstances, every cell in our body produces a certain small amount of oxygen-containing substances, or by-product. This by-product is from the normal cellular processes of our body: reproduction, elimination, growth, nutrition, transport, and syntheses, in addition to the contributions made by external sources like tobacco smoke, pesticides, radiation, industrial toxins, and pollutants. The oxygen created by these natural processes are split into single atoms with unpaired electrons, called free radicals. These unstable free radicals rip through the body trying to find other electrons to pair up with.
These highly reactive radicals can start a chain reaction, like dominoes. Their chief danger comes from the damage they can do when they react with important cellular components such as DNA or the cell membrane. Cells may function poorly or die if this occurs.
When left unchecked and free to develop unhindered, free radicals cause damage that can overwhelm the body. More from Dr. Weil: “By the time a free radical chain fizzles out, it may have ripped through vital components of cells like a tornado, causing extensive damage, similar to that caused by ionizing radiation.” This process causes a condition called oxidative stress, when the cells’ antioxidant system is overwhelmed by the amount of free radicals. The greater the number of free radicals in your body, the more damage is likely to be done. Our bodies work hard to keep these free radicals under control, keeping us in a state of homeostasis.
According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, board-certified family physician and president of the Nutritional Research Foundation:
“The body has ways of dealing with oxidative damage; a potent system of its own antioxidants that scavenge free radicals or convert them into less dangerous forms, slowing or stopping the damage. There are also cellular systems that repair oxidative damage, and others that induce cell death if there is too much damage.”
Oxidative stress is thought to contribute to bodily aging, cancer, all inflammatory diseases (arthritis, vasculitis, glomerulonephritis, lupus erythematous, adult respiratory diseases syndrome), ischemic diseases (heart diseases, stroke, intestinal ischemia), acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, emphysema, gastric ulcers, diabetes, hypertension and preeclampsia, neurological disorders (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy), alcoholism, and smoking-related diseases, just to name a few.
Understanding the accumulative effects and proper control of free radicals and oxidative stress, it’s no wonder that a search for nontoxic natural compounds with antioxidative properties pushes researchers to discover alternatives and ways to boost our own endogenous system. Instead of management of symptoms after disease has occurred, with a better understanding of the endocannabinoid system, we would hope to prevent disease and cancer by manipulating the ECS.