Nearly everyone's heard of the circulatory, nervous, and endocrine systems that govern our various physiological functions, but there's one bodily system we guarantee you didn't learn about in high school biology: the endocannabinoid system (ECS). While it's flown relatively under the radar since its discovery in the early 1990s, the ECS is generating more excitement and interest as research reveals its key role in regulating homeostasis and countless other bodily processes. Here, discover how the ECS works and how optimizing it supports physical and mental health.
The endocannabinoid system 101.
Also known as the "master regulatory system," the ECS is a cellular-level communication network responsible for maintaining homeostasis across all the body's organs and physiological functions. "There is not a human experience the ECS does not affect, 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," says Jessica Knox, M.D., MPH, co-founder of the American Cannabinoid Clinics and a preventive medicine physician. "The activity of the ECS is extremely complex, and we still have a lot to learn, but nevertheless, it provides a new framework with which to understand human health and wellness."
So how exactly does it work? The ECS seems to have two main components that interact with each other to exert its effects:
- Compounds called cannabinoids—some of which your body can synthesize on its own from essential fatty acids, including include anandamide (AEA)1 and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG)1, which are referred to as endocannabinoids. Cannabinoids can also be found in plants such as hemp (a cultivar of the Cannabis sativa plant), which are called phytocannabinoids.
- Cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2 receptors)—which are distributed throughout the nervous system1, including in the brain, in the GI tract, and on immune cells2, essentially spanning the entire body. Cannabinoids bind to these cannabinoid receptors, or influence them in other ways, triggering widespread physiological effects.
"You can think of the endocannabinoids as keys and the receptors as locks," says Knox. "When an endocannabinoid pairs with a cannabinoid receptor, it unlocks a cascade of downstream effects." As far as these "downstream effects go," research suggests1 this interaction between cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors plays a role in regulating pain perception, stress, appetite, mood, memory, gut inflammation, and gut-brain communication.
While scientists are still trying to understand the specific mechanisms by which the ECS modulates each of these different effects, it has to do with the fact that the ECS modulates neurotransmission3 (i.e., nerve signaling), according to integrative medicine physician Robert Rountree, M.D.
What is endocannabinoid deficiency?
Like any other system, the ECS can be thrown out of balance if you're not taking care of yourself. While still a fairly new theory, the term endocannabinoid deficiency4—first introduced by neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher Ethan Russo, M.D., in 2004—is used to describe the state of lower than normal levels of endocannabinoids in the body; and the relative health of someone's endocannabinoid system is referred to as their endocannabinoid tone5.
"The most common contributors to ECS deficiency are the usual suspects when it comes to poor health," says Knox. "Unhealthy diet and nutritional deficiency, environmental toxins and chemical pollutants, mental and emotional stress, and the ways these factors interplay with the typical aging process." Stress, for example, seems to throw the ECS out of whack by "activating enzymes that break these endocannabinoids down," adds Rountree.
Low levels of cannabinoids, in turn, have been associated with a variety of difficult-to-treat conditions6, "including migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and seizure disorders," says Knox.
But how do you know if you're dealing with endocannabinoid deficiency? Unfortunately, there's no commercially available method to test someone's endocannabinoid tone just yet. Generally feeling out of balance, or dealing with one of the chronic ailments above (especially if it doesn't get better despite your best efforts) could be an indicator. For example, says Rountree, "if someone has chronic digestive issues or IBS, despite being cleared of the major culprits like inflammatory bowel disease or an infectious agent, then I think it's a reasonable assumption this person could have a disorder of the endocannabinoid system."
But having a suboptimal ECS doesn't mean you're destined to experience poor health. In fact, this research has led to a growing interest in the use of phytocannabinoids (in the form of targeted supplements) to support the ECS and optimize overall health.
Supporting the endocannabinoid system with hemp oil.*
The emerging science of the ECS helps explain why taking hemp oil extract—which is derived from the seeds and stalks of the hemp plant and contains a variety of cannabinoids, including CBD—seems to enhance health.* Research on humans and animals has found that hemp-derived phytocannabinoids can help promote sleep7, support the body through digestive issues8 (diarrhea, nausea, and cramping), and help manage physiological symptoms of stress9, among other benefits.*
The reason, it seems, is that phytocannabinoids, like those found in full-spectrum hemp oil extract, can interact with the ECS and its receptors similarly to our own endocannabinoids, helping bring the body back to a state of homeostasis.*
Phytocannabinoids can influence the ECS in two ways, Rountree explains. "They either activate the receptors directly," essentially acting like endocannabinoids themselves or "they block the enzymes that normally break down endocannabinoids," which supports the production and preservation of the body's own endocannabinoids.
But don't confuse a full-spectrum hemp oil supplement with a product containing isolated CBD extract, which neither Rountree nor Knox recommend. "A full-spectrum product is always preferred because it will most closely represent the phytochemical composition of the source plant," says Knox.
As research on the ECS grows, more experts are touting the potential benefit of incorporating hemp into your daily routine. "A full-spectrum hemp product essentially acts like a multivitamin for the endocannabinoid system," says Carl Germano, R.D., CNS, CDN, clinical nutritionist and author of Road to Ananda.* In addition to a multivitamin, probiotic, omega-3, magnesium, and vitamin D, Germano believes hemp is one of the foundations of a good supplement protocol.
Other ways to support the endocannabinoid system.
Beyond hemp, most healthy lifestyle practices go a long way in supporting the ECS. "There is a long list of 'cannabimimetics,' or substances and practices that mimic or stimulate the activity of the endocannabinoid system, that people can incorporate into their routine," says Knox.
These cannabimimetics include plenty of foods such as those containing omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial building blocks in the formation of your own endocannabinoids. Think: wild-caught salmon or sardines, walnuts, and flax seeds (or a quality fish oil supplement). Some research even suggests that many of the anti-inflammatory benefits of consuming omega-3s can be attributed to their role in supporting the ECS.
Other ECS-supporting foods include a variety of herbs and spices. Black pepper, cloves, and black cumin seeds all contain the phytocannabinoid beta-caryophyllene10, which acts directly on CB2 receptors to regulate the ECS and control inflammation and pain signaling. Small amounts of phytocannabinoids and cannabimimetic nutrients can also be found in carrots, echinacea, cacao, hops, thyme, and rosemary, says Germano.
Additionally, almost anything that reduces stress (which, as mentioned earlier, can activate enzymes that break down your own endocannabinoids) supports the ECS. "Cannabimimetic practices11 include moderate exercise, deep breathing, yoga, acupuncture, massage, meditation, prayer, and almost any other mind-body therapeutic you can think of," says Knox. "One of the most exciting things about the ECS is that its physiology is finally providing the biological basis for many ancient healing traditions."
The bottom line:
The endocannabinoid system is a key regulator of homeostasis and overall physical and mental well-being. And while we still have a lot to learn about how this complex network of cannabinoids and receptors works as a whole, what we do know is exciting—especially since supporting the ECS by way of exercise, mind-body practices, healthy foods, and hemp oil extract supplements, is completely within our control.
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition. In addition to contributing to mindbodygreen, she has written for Women's Health, Prevention, and Health. She is also a certified holistic health coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She has a passion for natural, toxin-free living, particularly when it comes to managing issues like anxiety and chronic Lyme disease (read about how she personally overcame Lyme disease here).