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The Endocannabinoid System: Very Real, And Very Important

The recent movement toward universal legalization of medicinal marijuana has been derided by opponents as nothing more than a way for potheads to beat the system. In truth, it’s an inevitable and welcome development that’s grounded in established scientific research.

And it’s all based on the discovery of – and growing understanding of – the body’s extensive endocannabinoid system.

What Are Receptors?

To fully understand the importance of the endocannabinoid system, you must first be familiar with the purpose and function of the body’s cellular proteins called “receptors.”

Nearly everything the body does is a response to environmental stimuli. We sweat when our bodies sense that we’re getting really hot. We salivate when we smell delicious food. We breathe more quickly when we detect danger. We momentarily close our eyes when exposed to a bright light.

Each of those responses occurs because different groups of sensory receptors in our skin or external sensory organs detect an environmental change. They then translate the stimuli into electrical energy that’s relayed for appropriate action by the right organ or system in the body.

Thermoreceptors sense excessive heat and chemoreceptors sense the smell of foods, each stimulating bodily reactions. Mechanoreceptors sense unusual physical activity around us and photoreceptors sense changes in electromagnetic light waves, leading the body to react correctly.

There are also receptors in the body’s internal organs and systems, and they monitor and react to changes in the “internal” environment.

As just a few examples, receptors in the brain’s synapses interpret and send signals through the nervous system, carrying messages that tell the brain and body what to do. Baroreceptors in the aorta and carotid artery receive signals telling them the actions necessary to regulate blood pressure. Hormone receptors in breasts are important to the functioning of the female reproduction system, and even play a role in the treatment of breast cancer.

It All Started With Rats

In 1988, an important discovery was made by scientists examining the brains of rats. They found that the rats had another type of receptor that had previously been unknown; it turned out to be a receptor (later known as CB1) which interacted with substances called cannabinoids. In fact, there were more cannabinoid receptors in rats’ brains than receptors of any other type.

That was the first step toward discovering why the body responds to substances like THC and CBD – the two cannabinoids best known because of their presence in marijuana.

Research picked up steam throughout the late 80s and into the 1990s. Scientists used synthesized THC to determine that most of the CB1 cannabinoid receptors were located in the parts of the brain which control the body’s most important functions. They were able to clone the receptors to figure out precisely which substances activated them. They found that the receptors were also present in other animals’ bodies, including those of humans.

And they also discovered a new and different cannabinoid type of receptor (called CB2) in the nervous system and immune system, with numerous receptors located in the heart, liver, blood vessels, bones and other organs and systems.

It wasn’t simply a matter of some brain receptors responding to THC and CBD. There was an entire system in the body which had evolved specifically to respond to cannabinoids.

But why?

Meet the Endocannabinoid System

It was in 1992 that three researchers, two of them at the National Institute on Mental Health, discovered a cannabinoid which was created naturally in the body. It was named anandamide. Three years later they found a second one that was called 2-arachidonoylyglycol, or 2-AG for short. The first is similar to THC in that it binding to CB1 receptors, while the second binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors.

Since these substances are produced inside the body, they are collectively referred to as endocannabinoids (the prefix “endo-” means internal). They are the only two which have been researched and whose behavior is largely understood, although research continues and there may be many more endocannabinoids. After all, more than 100 different cannabinoids have been found to exist in marijuana.

Having identified the receptors and the endocannabinoids, scientists were able to map out a previously-undiscovered system in the body. Through this system, molecular signals are sent to help the body maintain homeostasis – the equilibrium that allows all organs and systems to work with each other to operate properly and efficiently. Basically, endocannabinoids play a major role in the way we move, feel and react to stimuli.

In fact, they may play an even greater role than the chemical messages (called neurotransmitters) sent to the body’s receptors that we’ve known about for decades. That’s because the endocannabinoid system works in the opposite direction.

Endocannabinoids are manufactured by the body at the “message destination,” and only as needed. They then travel backward to the cells which will be releasing neurotransmitters. In effect, they limit or regulate the release of messages being sent to the body’s other receptors.

That’s why the endocannabinoid system is so important in maintaining homeostasis.

The Endocannabinoid System and Health

So far, we’ve looked at the big picture. Most readers, however, are likely to be more interested in the specific implications for health and disease treatment.

We’ll begin with a partial list of the body functions which are reliant on the endocannabinoid system. They include the performance of the cardiovascular and nervous systems, digestion and sleep, mood and metabolism, learning and memory, reproduction and movement. Obviously, the list is nearly all-inclusive.

Just as importantly, there is strong scientific evidence that the body produces increased levels of endocannabinoids when dealing with illness, inflammation or disease. That’s particularly true in patients who suffer from chronic diseases, who show consistently high levels of endocannabinoids. The findings make intuitive sense since illnesses threaten the body’s homeostasis. Actually, many experts believe it works the other way around, with illnesses caused by a disruption of homeostasis.

Marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids like Marinol and Cesamet are increasingly prescribed and used for conditions and diseases as varied as fibromyalgia and Parkinson’s disease, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and migraine, as well as garden-variety anxiety and depression. They are generally effective for many patients, but certainly aren’t a magic bullet.

It would seem to make sense that bolstering the body’s endocannabinoid system with marijuana would be a strong weapon against illness and disease. There’s a good reason, though, why it doesn’t always work that way.

Does Cannabis Help The Body Function Better?

Not necessarily. It’s true that endocannabinoids are crucial regulators of body function. However, psychoactive cannabinoids like THC don’t take long to override the natural work of endocannabinoids. THC rapidly attaches to the body’s receptors and prevents the regulatory effects normally provided by the endocannabinoids produced internally.

THC overwhelming the brain’s pleasure centers explains the positive feelings associated with marijuana use. But when it also overpowers endocannabinoid receptors elsewhere in the brain and body, that’s why it can be difficult for many people to focus or remember things when they’re high, and why they may have difficulty with tasks requiring motor skills or even grow anxious.

In other words, it’s great to experience pain relief – but it’s not always a relief if the treatment interferes with normal daily activities.

What About CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) would appear to be the obvious solution. One of the many natural cannabinoids in marijuana, it has demonstrated significant success in the treatment of tumors and seizures, and has shown strong antioxidant, anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety and neuroprotective effects.

Moreover, CBD doesn’t have the psychoactive properties of THC, so it theoretically provides the illness-fighting benefits of a cannabinoid without the potential drawbacks. That is why there has been so much buzz around cannabidoil in recent years.

Unlike THC, however, CBD apparently does not attach directly to either the CB1 or CB2 receptors in the body. Instead, it mostly stimulates the body to produce more of its own endocannabinoids. That’s beneficial, of course, but not necessarily optimal.

The best approach – not surprisingly – was also uncovered through scientific research.

The Entourage Effect of Cannabinoids

Researchers studying the effects of marijuana, THC, CBD and the endocannabinoid system have made a crucial discovery: there’s an important synergy between the different compounds found in cannabis. And that has major implications for treating diseases and illnesses.

The name given to this phenomenon is the “entourage effect,” and it implies exactly what you might think. It’s more than THC or CBD which is responsible for the many effects of cannabis on the body. It’s an entire “entourage” of cannabinoids plus essential oils known as terpenoids (or terpenes), which are synthesized in the cannabis plant. Terpinoids not only contribute distinct aromas and flavors to cannabis, but also bind to endocannabinoid receptors in the body in the same way that THC does.

The basis of the entourage effect is simple. Benefits provided by the ingredients of cannabis are magnified by each other. That’s why, for many patients, THC or CBD by themselves often don’t provide the pain relief or disease amelioration seen with the use of cannabis. Terpenoids are particularly effective for pain issues, sleep problems and inflammation, as much or more than cannabinoids. Some also make it easier for the body to absorb and utilize cannabinoids and terpenoids.

If you are (or have been) a medical marijuana patient, you now understand why different strains are recommended for different health issues. Every strain of cannabis has a different mix of cannabinoids (at different ratios) and terpenoids, so there is theoretically an optimal – and different – “entourage” for each disease or health issue.

For example, a mix of the terpenoids myrcene, pinene and caryophelline has been shown to work well for anxiety, while research on the treatment of the super-bacteria MRSA is encouraging for the use of the lesser-known cannabinoid CBG with the terpenoids limonene and linalool.

The properties of each ingredient are fairly well known, but the science is not yet at the point where genetically-created strains are available for each possible medical use. For that reason, the product of choice for patients who don’t want to smoke or eat cannabis – or who are looking for an even better solution – is what’s known as full-spectrum CBD oil.

Why Full-Spectrum CBD Oil?

As we’ve discussed, CBD by itself doesn’t provide all of the benefits found in the cannabis plant. A study at Israel’s Hebrew University of Jerusalem has proven that fact, but most patients who’ve tried CBD-only oils or isolates (extracts from industrial hemp) already knew it.

The sensible alternative to cannabis, then, involves consuming oils which have been extracted from the whole cannabis plant. They differ by strain and contain varying levels of THC and/or CBD, but also dozens of other cannabinoids which might include CBG, CBD or CBN. They also contain different terpenoids which can help with everything from depression and memory loss, to pain and inflammation.

The most popular and effective whole-plant oils are full-spectrum CBD oils. They of course contain CBD, usually comprising around 90% of the oil’s cannabinoids. They also contain others (and not always THC) in naturally-occurring ratios. Some producers of full-spectrum CBD oil add extra THC or CBD to boost the oil’s potency

These oils also contain differing types and amounts of terpenoids, as well as a number of vitamins (including A, B-complexes, C and E), minerals (including potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron), and essential fatty acids (like Omega 3 and Omega 6) intrinsic to the plant and beneficial to the body.

You probably now realize the biggest benefit of full-spectrum CBD oil: the entourage effect means that each ingredient enhances the performance of the others, for maximum medicinal impact. That’s the true power of a full-spectrum oil.

Some producers list the major terpenoids found in their oils, but in many cases that information won’t be available. Most products contain the most important terpenoids, but trial-and-error is often your best friend when using full-spectrum CBD oil, in order to find the type that works best for your symptoms and medical issues.

What you should do before purchasing, however, is check several other factors:

  • The oil should be processed either through supercritical CO2 extraction or with the use of pharmaceutical-grade ethanol. That guarantees the highest possible quality.
  • Choose US-grown product when possible, because the plant sources must be certified by state governments.
  • Look for third-party laboratory testing results which show low levels of impurities and optimal levels of CBD. Speaking of which…
  • Be sure to know how much THC is in the CBD oil. That knowledge can save you from an unexpected high – and also an unexpected failed drug test.
  • Be certain that what you’re buying is actually full-spectrum CBD oil, since some vendors use similar words to disguise what’s really CBD-only oil.

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