The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
Human beings (and all other mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians, and birds) have a built-in biological system that can receive, process, and use the medicinal compounds in cannabis.
We are hardwired to use these compounds.
Amazingly, many people (including doctors!) don’t know about this built-in system. But it is truly one of the most important discoveries science has made about how the human body functions and deals with disease.
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
The system is called the endogenous cannabinoid system, or endocannabinoid system (ECS). It is an innate bodily system that produces its own cannabinoid-like compounds and can process the cannabinoids found in hemp and cannabis. According to Dr. John McPartland, this system started developing in life on earth around 600 million years ago.
While we started looking at cannabis medicinally thousands of years ago, we didn’t start isolating individual cannabinoids until a little over a century ago.
“The big picture, the discovery of the endocannabinoid system 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 ECS 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. Homeostasis is the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.
The Endocannabinoid System Relays Messages
As noted by the Italian researcher Vincenzo Di Marzo, Research Director at the Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry, the ECS relays messages that affect how we relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect – it is essential to life's basic processes.
The ECS is responsible for two major functions in the body. It is responsible for modulating pleasure, energy and well-being, while restoring bodily balance in the face of external stressors (physical, emotional, and psychological).
In summary, the ECS’s overall function is to regulate homeostasis and prevent disease and aging.
The Body’s Complex Inner Workings
So how does the ECS fit into that big picture of our body's complex inner workings and why is it important for managing disease? As an example, we can look to how the ECS interacts with the immune system. If your body is dealing with a virus or bacterial invader, your immune system will produce a fever to raise your temperature and kill the invader. When the job is done, the ECS signals the immune system to cool back down and restore homeostasis. But if the feedback loop doesn’t work correctly, we can develop inflammatory disorders or autoimmune diseases.
The ECS and Retrograde Signaling
According to Dr. Robert Melamede, a biologist whose primary body of work is the study of the endocannabinoid system, the ECS can be thought of as the task master. In it's role as task master, it is continually adjusting and readjusting the complex network of molecular thermostats that control our physiological tempo. And 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 happens when the ECS tells your immune system to cool back down after a fever has done its work. Retrograde signaling is a form of communication that inhibits immune response, reduces inflammation, relaxes muscles, lowers blood pressure, dilates bronchial passages, and normalizes overstimulated nerves. And as Dr. Martin Lee explains, retrograde signaling serves as an inhibitory feedback mechanism that tells other neurotransmitters to slow it down when they are firing too fast.
The ECS Interaction with Other Systems
The ECS interacts 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 many things in the body. It regulates: inflammation, pain, bone health, formation of new nerve cells, fat and sugar processing, mood, energy, brain health, and hormone balance.
The reason scientists came to understand these inner workings was in studying the effects of cannabis. The cannabinoids in hemp and cannabis stimulate the same receptors, CB1 and CB2, that our own natural compounds do. And, they can serve as a substitute retrograde messenger that mimic just what our bodies do when they seek to maintain balance.
This is why the study of cannabinoids such as CBD is so hot right now. And why thousands of studies for myriad treatments using this natural and nontoxic compound are underway at this very moment.
1) Healing and CBD by Eileen Konieczny, RN
2) Cannabis and CBD for Health and Wellness by Aliza Sherman and Dr. Junella Chin
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