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How do endocannabinoids work in the body and why should we care?

THE YEAR 1992 marked the first time in over 50 years a new complete body system was discovered in humans. Hebrew University’s Professor Lumir Hanus and American researcher William Devane, PhD, discovered endocannabinoids in the body after studying compounds in the cannabis plant. They were amazed at how close the compounds were to each other. After asking how do endocannabinoids work in the body, the doctors soon came to realize that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is one of the most important physiologic systems involved in establishing and maintaining human health.

Endocannabinoids (named after the cannabis plant that led to its discovery) and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands and immune cells. With its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system and virtually all the body’s organs, the endocannabinoids are a bridge between body and mind.

With a very similar chemical structure to cannabinoids, endocannabinoids are effectively cannabinoids produced by your body. By understanding endocannabinoids and the ECS system, we begin to see a mechanism that could connect brain activity with states of physical health and disease.

How do endocannabinoids work?

Endocannabinoids keep internal functions running smoothly by signaling other body functions and informing those functions to increase or decrease activity based on current body needs.

How do endocannabinoids work and what is the beauty of endocannabinoids? They go against the flow of typical chemical synaptic signaling to provide feedback back into the system. They complete the information circle.

For example, a neuron that releases a chemical neurotransmitter (say, GABA or glutamate) is designated as “pre-synaptic;” the target neuron that expresses receptors for that neurotransmitter is “postsynaptic.”

Endocannabinoids, however, are synthesized and released from postsynaptic cells and travel backward (in the “retrograde” direction) across the synapse, where they encounter receptors located on adjacent nerve terminals.[2] So, endocannabinoids provide information back through the system, completing a 360° loop of information and allowing all the cells to have two-way conversations.

Precisely positioned in synaptic regions, the ECS inhibits the release of many excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters. Thus, by releasing endocannabinoids, postsynaptic target cells can influence their own incoming synaptic signals.[3]

The Harvard Medical School says it well: “Your endocannabinoid system is the most important system in your body to create homeostasis.”[4] Simply put, the ECS is the body’s mechanism that tells the nervous system (in a Jersey accent) “Yo … neurons … we have enough stimulation, slow your roll.”

Examples of this mechanism include the ECS signaling neurons that there is too much acid in your stomach and too much inflammation in your hands. The endocannabinoid system provides the “stop signal” needed to report back to neurons, informing the neurons to quit sending those signals.

Endocannabinoids act like “traffic cops” to control the levels and activity of the other neurotransmitters.

The ECS is your mind’s traffic cop and comprises a vast network of chemical signals and cellular receptors densely packed throughout our brains and bodies. The cannabinoid receptors in the brain outnumber most other receptors in the brain. This might mean they are important.

This is how the ECS regulates things: by immediate feedback, turning up or down the activity of whichever system needs to be adjusted; whether that is hunger, temperature or alertness.[5]

The ECS is your body’s “thermostat,” critical to helping control our immune functioning.

One certain endocannabinoid receptor (CB1) exists mostly in our immune tissues and plays a role in modulating inflammation, including intestinal inflammation, contractions, and pain in inflammatory bowel conditions by providing signals back to the neurons, in effect signaling the neurotransmitters to stop transmitting.

What do CBD and other cannabinoids have to do with the endocannabinoid system?

The simple answer — the average American does not make enough endocannabinoids of their own, and Americans are not supplementing this deficiency through diet.

Our bodies are incapable of closing the 360° feedback loop needed because we simply do not have enough endocannabinoids for the signal, so no signal goes through. The feedback loop is broken. The neurons keep firing and firing. With no feedback loop, the neurons continue to signal your cells to keep producing the compounds they have enough of. DCs know this as inflammation and overstimulation — they see this every day.

Consumption of natural cannabinoids can halt that deficiency by closing the “open-loop” and shutting down the overproduction signals neurotransmitters are sending to excite the cells. Your body needs cannabinoids are much as it needs iron, vitamin C or B12.

The NIH goes into more detail in the article, “Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (ECD) Reconsidered: Current Research Supports the Theory in Migraine, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel, and Other Treatment-Resistant Syndromes.”[6] The theory of ECD was based on the concept that many brain disorders are associated with neurotransmitter deficiencies, affecting acetylcholine in Alzheimer’s disease, dopamine in Parkinsonian syndromes, serotonin and norepinephrine in depression, and that a comparable deficiency in endocannabinoid levels might be manifest similarly in certain disorders that display predictable clinical features as sequelae of this deficiency.

Continued research and chiropractic leadership

Continued research is needed, and there is a race between many reputable institutions to discover new benefits of cannabis. Examples of organizations investing millions into cannabinoid research include the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the University of Texas-Austin, Oregon State University and the University of Kentucky. This is a microcosm of studies currently happening, as hundreds of other reputable institutions are investing in ECS and cannabinoid research to answer the question how do endocannabinoids work. It is an exciting time in the industry, and we will continue to learn a lot more about the role of the ECS and cannabis in improving human health.

Chiropractors can take a leadership role in solving this health crisis, just as DCs have done with the opioid crisis and COVID. That leadership role includes incorporating quality, proven and trusted CBD products into practice to help improve patients’ minds and bodies between visits.

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