The Endocannabinoid System: A Molecular Bridge Between Body and Mind?
Not long ago, Dr. Dustin Sulak did an article for NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) that discussed the human endocannabinoid system in simple, easy to understand terms.
In it, he described the ways in which plant-based cannabinoids (called phytocannabinoids) like CBD interact with naturally-occurring receptors in our bodies to regulate and maintain an astonishingly wide range of bodily functions. Everything from our pain, immune, and emotional responses to our digestive patterns and reproductive viability, he said, seem to be in some way connected to this vast internal molecular system that each and every one of us have.
And not just us as humans; Dr. Sulak also mentioned that every living vertebrate animal – from horses and dogs to “sea squirts and nematodes” – also has this ECS system which responds to the active molecular compounds in cannabis.
How is this possible? How is it that nearly every living thing on earth has an innate molecular system that governs virtually all aspects of health, homeostasis, survival, and reproduction? And how is it that this system can be so influenced and manipulated by natural compounds in the cannabis plant?
Well, as it turns out, natural cannabis compounds (CBD being one of them) have a near identical chemical structure as the human compounds (specifically anandamide and 2-AG) that govern the endocannabinoid system.
For this reason, Dr. Sulak has described the ECS as “perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health,” and has illustrated it as a potential bridge between body and mind that oversees molecular actions on our organs, cells, nerves, and immune system, among many other things.
The Importance of Cannabinoid Receptors in the Endocannabinoid System
Cannabinoid receptors have been found in virtually every and cell and tissue type in the human body. In fact, some researchers believe they may be the most prominent and abundant receptor in humans. They are located in the membranes of various cell types, and when they’re activated, they can “stimulate” cells to carry out dozens – if not hundreds or thousands – of different responses.
Cannabinoid receptors have been found for example throughout our nervous system, glands, connective tissues, organs, immune system, and reproductive systems. Under “healthy” conditions, the receptors are stimulated by the aforementioned endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG, which are produced naturally by the body. If/when there is a deficiency in the production or functioning of these compounds (a condition known as endocannabinoid deficiency), the receptors are unable to be stimulated, and thus the cells and corresponding organs are not able to function properly or maintain homeostasis (balance) throughout the body.
This is where phytocannabinoids (such as CBD) from the cannabis plant can come in.
In the event of a deficiency or malfunctioning of the human compounds anandamide or 2-AG, plant-based cannabinoids can effectively “take their place” and stimulate the cannabinoid receptors on their own, thereby allowing cells to carry out their specific functions and return the body back to a relative state of health and homeostasis.
Moreover, what’s so incredible about these cannabinoid compounds and their receptors is their “multi-function” capabilities. In other words, they appear to be able to “instruct” the cell to carry out a number of different functions, depending on what exactly the body needs to return to a state of balance. This is why studies have shown medical cannabis to have a positive effect on anything from stress, anxiety to even pain, etc.
In terms of the action of CBD specifically, it appears to differ from the other key cannabis compound (THC) in one crucial way; it doesn’t bind directly to the receptors in our cells.
Rather, it seems to work in more of an indirect or “roundabout” way to promote the natural production of our endocannabinoids, rather than “doing things on its own.” For this reason, rather than producing a psychoactive, mind-altering response in the brain and central nervous system (as does THC), it simply promotes our body’s cells to heal and repair themselves in an organic, natural way.
And lastly, the antioxidative properties of cannabinoids can provide a crucial level of protection against disease for our cells, tissues, and organ systems. The ‘oxidation’ of certain compounds in our bodies result in what’s known as “free radical” compounds. These compounds can do irreversible and potentially catastrophic damage to cells, unless a sufficient number of “antioxidants” are available to dispose of them – a task that cannabinoids are able to carry out very effectively. (In fact, the U.S. government holds a patent on cannabinoids for their anti-oxidative properties).
In this way, compounds like CBD are believed to provide a natural and highly effective form of protection against free radicals that, according to Dr. Sulak, can cause aging and an inability for the body to heal itself.
How the Endocannabinoid System Works as a “Bridge” Between Mind and Body
In addition to the seemingly “straightforward” physiologic effects that they have on our cellular receptors, Dr. Sulak also suggests that cannabinoids such as CBD can play a crucial role on much larger social and environmental scales.
For example, he believes natural cannabis compounds have the ability to alter our relationship with the environment around us, and allow us to adapt in a positive way to the myriad of changes (whether physical, emotional, etc) that we face on a day-to-day basis.
“Socially,” he says, “the administration of cannabinoids clearly alters human behavior, often promoting sharing, humor, and creativity.”
These changes, in combination with the ability of cannabinoids to promote the growth and development of new nerve cells, may improve our open-mindedness and allow us to transcend “limiting patterns of thought and behavior” – a crucial step in maintaining total body/mind health in a perpetually changing environment.
In this way, we begin to understand from a scientific perspective how CBD – and cannabis in general – may truly be a molecular bridge between body and mind.
[You can read the entirety of Dr. Sulak’s article, titled “Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System,” by accessing the Library tab on NORML’s website].
In Conclusion: A Word of Discretion and Responsibility
Taking all of this into consideration, it is still important to reiterate the fact that cannabis and endocannabinoid research is still very much in its infancy. Regardless of how fascinating and promising initial research studies and findings have been, there is still much that we need to learn about in terms of how this system works on a complete chemical and physiological level, and how we can manipulate it to maximum therapeutic effect with cannabis compounds such as CBD.
Moreover, due to the fact that every one of us has a unique endocannabinoid system and a unique makeup of cellular receptors, we must point out that not everyone will experience positive effects when taking a product like CBD oil – or any other CBD-infused product for that matter. In fact, some may not experience any effects at all.
As a general word of advice, be realistic and patient when anticipating the effects of CBD, and be advised that it is certainly not a cure for any condition – nor is it a guaranteed treatment option for any medical ailment.
And finally, we emphasize the fact that we are NOT doctors or health professionals, and thereby none of the information in this article (or elsewhere on the site) should be taken as clinical advice.