I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This is apparently one of the body’s more complex systems – on the level of the digestive system, the nervous system, and the immune system. It is believed to play a major role in maintaining homeostasis (balance) in the mind and body. Where would I start writing about the digestive system (for example)? How could I do it justice in this format? To get a sense of the complexity of the ECS see this 2012 “overview.”
Endo stands is short for “endogenous”, which means originating within the body. Cannabinoids are the substances that activate the ECS. We are more familiar with phytocannabinoids (plant-derived cannabinoids) such as THC and CBD. After Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam and his associates discovered THC in 1963 (and later CBD) they began to search for how these substances worked. In 1991 they discovered that THC binds to certain sites in the brain and nervous system and they called these “CB1 receptors.” In 1992 the team found the natural substance that binds to this receptor and named it “anandamide.” The team found another receptor, mostly in the gut and the immune system, and named it CB2. They discovered the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) as a substance that naturally binds to the CB2 receptor (also binding to a lesser extent to the CB1 receptor).
So if the phytocannabinoid THC binds to the CB1 receptor, does the phytocannabinoid CBD bind to the CB2 receptor? It would be great if it were that simple, but it is not. CBD does not bond directly to either CB1 or CB2 receptors but it appears to increase the level of natural cannabinoids (endocannabinoids). It is also a “negative allosteric modulator” to the CB1 receptor, actually reducing THC’s ability to bind with CB1. This may be one reason that CBD seems to mellow THC’s high and decrease paranoia. CBD also acts on chemicals like serotonin. CBD’s ability to relieve pain is likely due to a different mechanism entirely. It is the result of activating transient receptor potential vanilloid type 1 (TRPV1) receptors.
Got all that? Me neither.
What I do get is the idea of homeostatis. Wikipedia defines homeostasis as
“the property of a system in which variables are regulated so that internal conditions remain stable and relatively constant. Examples of homeostasis include the regulation of temperature and the balance between acidity and alkalinity (pH).”
The ECS appears to be responsible for regulating balance in the body. Dr. Ethan Russo believes that some challenging syndromes, such as migraine headaches and fibromyalgia, are actually due to an endocannabinoid deficiency. If our body produces too little anandamide and 2-AG (and other endocannabinoids) it may result in painful syndromes such as these. The implication is that cannabinoids may eventually be part of a treatment for migraines and fibromyalgia.
In China migraines and fibromyalgia might be addressed as imbalances in Qi (pronounced “chi”). Qi is the concept of vital energy. Acupuncture meridians are thought of as channels for Qi in the body. Qigong and Tai Chi are techniques for improving Qi.
Western Medicine is missing a system of vital energy. Most systems of medicine around the world recognize the importance of this vital energy for the mind and body. The concepts of yin and yang are important components of Qi, and it is critical that yin and yang are balanced. In Japan vital energy is called Ki. In India it is prana. Some Western medicine doctors understand that “the will to live” is an important component in someone’s battle against a chronic or terminal illness, but that’s about the only time you hear anything approaching this concept in the West.
Is the endocannabinoid system the same as Qi? Do they at least overlap? What do you think?