The Most Interesting Discoveries We Made About The Endocannabinoid System In 2020
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is hands-down the most interesting system you never learned about in science class.
The expansive network of cellular receptors promotes homeostasis throughout the body and brain. "There is not a human experience the ECS does not affect," Jessica Knox, M.D., MPH, co-founder of the American Cannabinoid Clinics, previously told mbg, "from fertility and conception to moderating pain, mood, mental health, learning, sleep, and appetite as we grow and mature, to modulating brain health as we age."
The ECS is regulated by a troop of signaling molecules that essentially act as keys to the receptor's locks. If the body's balance is somehow thrown off, the molecules will attach to ECS receptors in that area to tell them to find equilibrium again. The human body naturally releases some of these regulatory molecules on its own, and these are called endocannabinoids. They also exist in some plants, the most ubiquitous of which being cannabinoids, from the cannabis plant.
That's part of the reason the ECS wasn't featured more prominently in your high school biology textbook. It was only discovered in the last few decades, when researchers were looking into how marijuana gets processed in the body. Since the drug has long been illegal in the U.S., its associated system has remained stigmatized and relatively unexplored. But that's quickly changing.
Now that nonpsychoactive cannabis products like hemp extract (and its most well-known cannabinoid, CBD) are legal on the federal level in the U.S., research on the endocannabinoid system is revving up. As mbg's director of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, points out, there were 635 studies published on the endocannabinoid system in 2020, compared to 348 in 2010 and 41 in 2000. The uptick in hemp research is even more apparent: Compared to 217 studies on hemp in 2000, there were 3,065 in 2020—a 14-fold increase.
We sifted through it all to pinpoint some of the most fascinating things we've discovered about cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system in the past year. This new research also provides some clues on how we can all tend to our ECS to better manage inflammation, support immune function, regulate mood, ease pain, and more:
Cannabinoids could serve as a safer alternative to opioids for chronic pain.
In the midst of the opioid epidemic, hemp extract is being studied as a safer pain management alternative. In one study, 97 adults prescribed opioids for chronic pain started taking a CBD-rich hemp extract on top of existing medication. At the end of the eight-week trial, 53% of patients were able to reduce or eliminate their opioid use, and almost all of them reported quality-of-life improvements such as better sleep and less intense pain following the adjunct cannabinoid treatment. Explore the research here1.
2. HIIT-style exercise seems to promote ECS activity in the brain.
This year, researchers out of Switzerland published research exploring how short, 15-minute bouts of intense exercise affects the brain. They studied 21 healthy male subjects and found that their endocannabinoid levels in the brain were elevated after exercising, which could be one reason subjects performed better on a motor learning memory test following the workout. Previous research has linked cannabinoid-rich hemp extracts with the rush of endorphins associated with a runner's high, signaling that the ECS is somehow involved in that happy, mentally sharp feeling we get after a workout. Explore the research here2.
3. Evidence builds that CBD helps children with severe epilepsy.
As of now, only one cannabis-derived drug has been approved by the FDA3, and it's used to treat pediatric epilepsy. So this application is, understandably, the subject of a lot of ongoing research. Earlier this year, a review of 35 studies that have looked into using CBD for severe childhood epilepsy concluded that "cannabidiol probably reduces the frequency of seizures among children with drug-resistant epilepsy." Explore the research here4.
Cannabinoids might work in tandem to deliver mood-stabilizing psychiatric benefits.
Though CBD is the most widely researched cannabinoid in hemp extracts, the plant is actually chock-full of other cannabinoids that have promising health benefits, too. When taken together in a whole-plant extract, these cannabinoids seem to go into overdrive; the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts in a phenomenon known as the entourage effect.
This year, one review concluded that this entourage effect could be what's responsible for the wide-ranging mood-stabilizing benefits of cannabinoid products. On top of that, another review found that the ECS's connection to psychiatric disorders like PTSD, depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorder is "undeniable." Explore the research here5.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.