Cannabinoids do one major thing; they help promote homeostasis, or complete balance within the body. This concept is simple enough, cannabinoids may promote sleep in those who struggle with it, reduce pain for those with chronic inflammation, and instill calm in those who are anxious.
On the other hand, the mechanisms through which cannabinoids oversee homeostasis are actually quite complex. Think of the intricacies of the human body for a moment: four types of tissues, nine major organ systems, 200 types of cells, trillions of said cells, billions of base pairs of DNA...the list goes on.
While a static conceptualization of this is impressive enough, the reality is that these elements are interwoven and constantly moving. What holds them all together? What synchronizes their actions?
Usually the Endocannabinoid System does! This system, also known as the ECS, fosters communication between cells, organs, and other physiological systems. And cannabinoids make this possible; they interact more directly with the endocannabinoid system than any other group of compounds is able to.
Getting into specifics, cannabinoids may improve sleep, mood, inflammation levels, and much more via their gentle ‘activation’ of the ECS. They also help the body respond to stress and regulate much of the immune response. They’re antimicrobial, antibacterial, anti-epileptic, and anxiolytic in nature.
In the brain, cannabinoids help promote neuroplasticity, or flexible thought. This means they may play a role in reducing addiction and/or substance dependency. Cannabinoids tend to function most in the evolutionarily ‘newer’ parts of the brain, which is why they’re able to help regulate emotion, memory, hunger, and sleep. Ph.D. molecular biologist Bob Melamede goes so far as to say that cannabinoids may have in fact played a role in evolution!
In the body, cannabinoids strengthen the immune and nervous systems. Both systems are programmed, if you will, to pick up on inputs and outputs. The immune system monitors inputs (microbes, allergens, pathogens, etc.) that find their way within, while the nervous system oversees outputs like the electrical flows that innervate nerves. Cannabinoids likely help both these systems remain sensitive so they can function at their best.
Cannabinoids can even be thought of as adaptogens — substances that foster adaptation and epigenetic progress. On a micro scale, cannabinoids are closely involved in calcium channel regulation, a process that tracks closely with intracellular stress. When stress is high, endocannabinoids get pushed into on-demand production until the body has had a chance to perceive and adapt.
These endocannabinoids function as powerful neurotransmitters by traveling backward across synaptic junctions. To put it simply, they help send biochemical signals by activating areas from which other signals are sent.
The incredible diversity of eCB’s can be explained by just how far-reaching the endocannabinoid system is. Its receptors are found virtually everywhere, and regulate virtually everything!
Just as cannabinoid sufficiency promotes balance and wholeness, low cannabinoid levels may lead to imbalances and eventual system breakdown and disease. CBD expert and neuroscientist Dr. Ethan Russo theorizes that many common diseases — especially those that respond poorly to conventional medicine — actually have endocannabinoid deficiency at their source.
This isn’t surprising when you consider just how much stress modern life exposes us to. While it’s true that the ECS helps us deal with stress, it’s also true that even this system can get overwhelmed. Expose a person to chronic stress for long enough and eventually endocannabinoid production may fail to keep up.
Thankfully, there are many ways to boost up internal cannabinoid levels. And it’s not a bad idea, either; doing so may help one recover from disease, feel their best, and keep themselves thriving in this modern world.
A variety of factors are known to raise and regulate eCB production. The most basic one? Stress — but only mild stress, or eustress. The concept of eustress is that small amounts of a stressor (say metabolically-derived free radicals) produce an overcompensatory increase in vitality.
In the same way, healthy stress likely triggers overcompensatory endocannabinoid production. For example, blood levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide have been shown to more than double after a stressful workout. Why? Because they’re helping the body recovers and quickly adapt to the stress that is exercise.
A diet rich in healthy fats may raise endocannabinoids levels, too. That’s because endocannabinoids are fat-solubles that have polyunsaturated fats like AA (arachidonic acid) as their precursor. While a specific PUFA-to-endocannabinoid conversion ratio hasn’t yet been determined, adding some healthy omega 3’s to your diet is definitely a good idea. Perhaps it’s no surprise that these types of fats have been deemed so essential to brain health.
Another thing that may boost eCB’s: Sunlight exposure. Morning sunlight, in particular, facilitates endocannabinoid production indirectly by initiating the release of nitric oxide (NO) into the bloodstream. N.O. and eCB’s are intricately connected; they both work via retrograde signaling, after all. When sun hits the dermal layers, it’s effectively transferring energy towards production of both these important molecules.
Morning sunlight exposure may also keep the endocannabinoid system fully entrained to proper circadian rhythm. In other words, endocannabinoids may help you stay awake during the day — while also helping you sleep better at night.
Cold exposure also has the potential to help your body produce more endocannabinoids. It’s inherently stressful, after all! Cold exposure stimulates the creation of extra mitochondria, especially within fat cells. Mitochondria are sometimes called the power plant of the cell, and for good reason; they help convert food energy into ATP.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that these little power plants, like everything else, are teeming with endocannabinoid receptors. Knowing this, could eCB’s be facilitating the health benefits of cold exposure? It’s very possible.
Finally, a person’s age often impacts their endocannabinoid levels. It’s likely that the endocannabinoid system weakens with age, something that’s reflected by reduced brain function.
Unlike the strategies to boost eCB’s that we’ve listed above, a person can’t do anything about their age. However, people can subject themselves to less stress as they get older and try to eat well and exercise.
As we’ve said, the endocannabinoid system is powerful, versatile, and overall pretty amazing. It produces internal cannabinoids in every part of the body, virtually all the time. In a very real sense, all of us our ‘high’ on our own biochemistry right now.
While a healthy individual will produce enough endocannabinoids to satisfy the body’s demands for balance and homeostasis, most of us aren’t perfectly healthy. Like any other system, the ECS can get depleted, and eCB production can fall behind stress-induced demands over time.
When a person’s body first begins to fight against inflammation and/or disease, endocannabinoid levels swell up at the most affected areas. Endocannabinoid receptors increase in density, too, signaling to the immune system a greater demand for attention.
But this rise is often transient; if the disease state persists, things level back off. That leaves a surplus of endocannabinoid receptors left without any ligands (like cannabinoids!) to signal to them.