Have You Heard Of The Endocannabinoid System? It Rules Your Anxiety, Headaches & Pain
We're in the middle of a cannabis revolution. As of now, Washington, D.C., and nine other states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, and 29 states have passed laws that make it legal for medical purposes. CBD edibles and cannabis-based self-care and beauty products are flying off the shelves as the nation redefines the reputation of the plant itself and, maybe more significantly, the people who take advantage of its properties.
This has led to a surge of interest in how cannabis works in the body. It turns out, cannabis interacts with, and plays a key role in, the body's "master regulatory system"—the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The science of the ECS is fascinating, and it's about SO much more than marijuana, THC, or CBD. Here's what I mean:
Understanding marijuana, hemp oil, and the endocannabinoid system.
Cannabis sativa is the taxonomic name for the cannabis plant, which includes both marijuana and hemp. The technical and legal definitions of marijuana and hemp are complicated, but marijuana typically has been bred specifically for its higher cannabinoid content and has elevated levels of THC, the cannabinoid responsible for its psychoactive effects. Hemp is cannabis that generally has low levels of THC and has been historically used for industrial purposes, like making textiles.
All that said, cannabis plants are extremely diverse, and the ratios of cannabinoids vary greatly. Another notable cannabinoid is CBD, which is known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties. The CBD products currently being sold in your favorite healthy cafe or health food store are derived from hemp—with levels of THC less than 0.3 percent—and are considered non-psychoactive, which means they won't get you high.
Getting to know all the different kinds of cannabinoids.
"Cannabinoid" is the name given to any compound that interacts with the endocannabinoid system, including the cannabinoids found naturally in your body (called endocannabinoids) and the ones found naturally in plants (called phytocannabinoids). The most well-known cannabinoids are CBD and THC, but there are more than 100 in the cannabis plant, and they each have unique structures and functions. Surprisingly, cannabinoids and endocannabinoid-supporting nutrients can be found in plants other than the cannabis plant, like hops and rosemary. The health of the ECS is also intricately connected to our omega-3 levels, since endocannabinoids are actually synthesized from omega-3 fatty acids in the body. Studies have even shown that the complex chemical reactions that convert omega-3s to endocannabinoids have anti-inflammatory benefits.
The endocannabinoid system: What we know and what we suspect.
So what do we know for sure about the ECS? For starters, we know it's comprised of our body's endogenous cannabinoids and their receptors and was discovered as a result of studying marijuana. We also know that specific diseases—like arthritis, depression, fibromyalgia, IBS, and migraines—have been connected to lower levels of natural endocannabinoids or other changes in the endocannabinoid system's activity. This discovery had led researchers to actually coin the terms "clinical endocannabinoid deficiency" and "endocannabinoid tone" to describe the health of a person's endocannabinoid system and potentially to use as a way to measure their overall health as well. All that said, there is still a LOT to learn about using cannabinoids for specific ailments and how the entire system works as a whole.
The future of the endocannabinoid system.
If there's one thing that almost every person in the world can agree on, it's that we're all stressed. And whether they be small stressors like getting stuck in traffic, or large sources of stress like losing a loved one, we encounter stress in one form or another on a daily basis. Fascinating research1 has identified that the endocannabinoid system plays a major role in the way our body responds to stress. In the future, we may be able to leverage this knowledge to cope with chronic stress and minimize its negative consequences.
This could have major implications for how we diagnose and treat illnesses. Almost every health problem out there—including extremely common ones like depression, heart disease, GI issues, asthma, and headaches—can be exacerbated by stress and are likely even caused by it. Understanding how our "master regulatory system" works, and how cannabinoids influence this system, might just be the key to taming stress and taking control of our health.
Are you going to the biggest wellness event of the year? We'll be talking all about cannabinoids, hemp, and the ECS.
Gretchen Lidicker is an mbg health contributor, content strategist, and the author of CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Hemp-Derived Health and Wellness and Magnesium Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Epsom Salts, Magnesium Oil, and Nature's Relaxation Mineral. She holds a B.S. in biology and earned her master’s degree in physiology with a concentration in complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University.