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A couple of months ago, I found out I had an endocannabinoid system, and it’s fair to say it was quite a revelation.
I mean, I thought I had a reasonable grasp on the body’s physiology after training as a massage therapist and reflexologist, but it seems there was one important bodily system that failed to get a mention—the poor old endocannabinoid system (or ECS).
I say “old” because this isn’t some new-age theory. It’s just that since its discovery by scientists 20 years ago, the ECS has barely been taught in medical school or even made it into the public domain. Something particularly astounding seeing as it influences practically every physiological activity from happiness to pain regulation, but on closer inspection might have something to do with its unique etymology.
You see, the endocannabinoid system takes its name from the cannabis plant—specifically the chemical compounds or cannabinoids within it, referring to the body’s inner (endo) cannabis like chemicals that interact with specific receptors, bringing about homeostasis (a state of balance). In simple terms, it acts like a dimmer switch: if there’s too much or too little activity in a system the ECS acts to bring it back into equilibrium again.
Holistic missing link.
On discovering the ECS, I felt an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude that this underappreciated system should be working tirelessly to keep a sometime unruly and errant orchestra in harmony without any applause for all the great work it does.
And with each new tidbit of information making it through my slightly scientifically challenged brain, I’m filled with even more excitement at the therapeutic potential it holds.
Like, for instance, how the ECS modulates neuroplasticity, the holy grail of mental health and how cannabis plant cannabinoids work in conjunction with the ECS as neuroprotectants, And don’t even get me started on their roles as safer alternatives to prescription pain medication.
Every healing modality that works by a holistic ethos is working on just what the ECS has been doing since we were in the womb—bringing the body into a state of balance so it can heal itself.
I would even go one step further and say that it might even provide the physiological link between mind, body and spirit.
Take for instance the first endocannabinoid to be discovered: Anandamide. Named after Ananda, the Sanskrit (ancient Indian language) word for bliss, it produces a sense of joy and well being. In fact scientists have shown that “runner’s high”—once thought to be a product solely of endorphins—is actually associated with higher anandamide levels. Just think about that chilled out feeling while lying on the yoga mat at the end of class, or how you feel receiving a massage—that’s also anandamide in action.
There’s even a genetic mutation that affects about 20 percent of people, whereby they produce more anandamide than the rest of us. They’re the lucky ones who are always relaxed, rarely feeling anxious and seem to be on a natural high.
Give the ECS a helping hand.
Studies suggest that an out of whack ECS often caused by the stresses of modern life, can be a contributing factor to hard to explain conditions such as fibromyalgia, migraines and IBS. It’s super important then to give the ECS a helping hand so that it can get on with the job of keeping us well and happy.
The hippocratic classic “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” is never truer in this instance. A natural chemical found in dark leafy vegetables, oregano and black pepper and called beta-caryophyllene activates the endocannabinoid receptor associated with modulating the inflammatory response and Omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish, hemp and flax oil also aid optimum ECS function.
And don’t forget to get active. Go running, do yoga, or whatever floats your exercise boat. Just make sure it’s not under duress as forced exercise can be a stressor to the body and actually decreases endocannabinoid receptor signalling.
Scientists originally discovered the ECS after isolating one of the active compounds in cannabis, THC—the one that gets you high. And since then thousands of studies have taken place to see how these phytocannabiniods interact with the ECS and influence people’s health.
Turns out they do an amazing job, with scientific studies backing up anecdotal evidence showing how cannabis can improve conditions such as epilepsy, chronic pain, MS, Parkinson’s and symptoms associated with cancer treatment.
That sounds swell, but if we don’t happen to live in a part of the world where medical cannabis is legal, then options are limited or at best risky. Now, I do not advocate breaking the law, but in most countries it’s the psychoactive THC that makes it illegal. Another powerful cannabinoid is CBD or Cannabidiol which doesn’t cause a high but does promote a healthy, functioning endocannabinoid system. CBD can be extracted from the hemp plant, lawfully consumed in most countries, although be sure to find a quality, organically grown source.
So there we have it. From sea squirt to humans, we all have an ECS working away to keep us on the straight and narrow in a true act of anonymous service. So join me in a virtual standing ovation for the biological hero that’s been patiently waiting for our recognition and appreciation.
Endocannabinoid System—we salute you.
Author: Mary Biles
Image: WikiMedia Commons
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina