“The discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the single most important scientific medical discovery since the recognition of sterile surgical technique. As our knowledge expands, we are coming to realize that the ECS is a master control system of virtually all physiology.”
—Dr. David B. Allen
The endogenous cannabinoid system is an extensive network of neurons, neural pathways, receptors, cells, molecules, and enzymes that work tirelessly throughout your body to maintain a state of homeostasis: a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.
The ECS is essential to life’s basic processes by relaying messages that affect how we “relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect,” as noted by the Italian researcher Vincenzo Di Marzo, Research Director at the Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry of the National Research Council and editor of several books on cannabinoids.
So in other words, it’s responsible for two major functions in the body: modulating pleasure, energy, and well-being while restoring bodily balance in the face of external stressors (physical, emotional, and psychological). The total effect of the ECS is to regulate homeostasis and prevent disease and aging.
Seems like a pretty important system, no? And yet, a 2013 survey of 157 accredited American medical schools (carried out by Dr. David B. Allen, a retired cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon and endocannabinoid researcher), showed that only 13% of medical schools mentioned the endocannabinoid system in curriculum. Today’s physicians weren’t taught that cannabis can be a medicine; they were taught that it was a drug of abuse.
So how does the ECS fit into the big the picture of our body’s complex inner workings? And why is it important to the mitigation of disease?
Let’s explain by looking at one specific bodily system, the immune system. Say your body is faced with a virus or bacterial invader. Your immune system will kick on like a furnace to produce the fever needed to fry the invader. When the job is done, the ECS signals the immune system to cool down and restore homeostasis. But if the feedback loop is out of control, if the immune system overreacts to stress or mistakes its own body for a foreign invader, this is when we develop autoimmune diseases or inflammatory disorders.
According to Dr. Robert Melamede, a biologist that devoted his career to the study of the endocannabinoid system, you can think of the ECS as the task master that is constantly multitasking, adjusting, and readjusting the complex network of molecular thermostats that control our physiological tempo—and you’ll remember that our bodies like to keep this tempo balanced.
The ECS is unique because of its “retrograde signaling,” which is how it helps bodies maintain homeostasis. Retrograde signaling is what’s happening when the ECS tells your immune system to cool it after a fever has done its work, for example. According to Martin Lee, it is a form of intracellular communication that inhibits immune response, reduces inflammation, relaxes muscles, lowers blood pressure, dilates bronchial passages, and normalizes overstimulated nerves. And as Lee explains, “retrograde signaling serves as an inhibitory feedback mechanism that tells other neurotransmitters to cool it when they are firing too fast.”
And let’s not forget how we came to understand these inner workings in the first place: cannabis! The cannabinoids in hemp and cannabis stimulate the same receptors (CB1 and CB2) that our own natural compounds do, serving as a substitute “retrograde messenger” that mimics just what our bodies do when they try to maintain balance. This gives cannabis a unique synergy with our own bodily processes, and allows it to be a natural and nontoxic medicine. It is also why cannabis-based treatments and supplements must be tailored to the individual, because everybody and every ECS is unique.
Not only that, but the endocannabinoid system is not a lone wolf, meaning it is not a self-contained system. The ECS interacts robustly with other non-cannabinoid systems like the endorphin system, the immune system, and the vanilloid system (responsible for changing pain from acute to chronic). In modulating these other systems, the ECS regulates inflammation, pain, bone health, formation of new nerve cells, fat and sugar processing, mood, energy, brain health, and hormone balance.