Deep within the recesses of the mind, a tiny molecule lurks. Working behind the scenes to maintain balance, this little molecule coordinates neurotransmission (aka the sending of electrical signals) on its way to ensuring one’s overall health.   

There’s actually more than one of these little molecules, and they don’t relegate themselves to the brain. They’re scattered throughout the peripheral nervous system and every vital organ we humans possess; they can even be found in muscle and fat cells. 

Where did these molecules come from? Your body produces them, in virtually every part of itself… virtually all the time. Scientists call these molecules endocannabinoids: internal (endo), cannabis-like compounds. 

These endocannabinoids (eCB’s) closely mirror some of the primary active ingredients in hemp, ingredients like CBD and THC. Their production has been tied to lower stress, faster recovery and better sleep. 

How do they accomplish this? By reacting with another important part of our physiology: endocannabinoid receptors. 

Together, endocannabinoids and their receptors combine to form a very important signaling system. You may have never heard of it — in fact, just a few decades ago it hadn’t even been discovered yet — but it’s been covertly regulating vitality and health for your entire life.  We’re talking about the endocannabinoid system

The Endocannabinoid System: A Homeostatic Regulator

If one had to conceptualize the endocannabinoid system in one word, it’d be balance

The human body has many moving parts, so maintaining balance within it requires something very complex. Of course, we have an immune system, which monitors inputs and outputs, and a nervous system, which monitors internal communication…but something has to hold it all together. Something has to maintain homeostasis, which really just means balance among opposing forces.  That something is the endocannabinoid system. 

It’s comprised of three major parts, two of which we already mentioned. Let’s take a deeper look: 

Part One: Endocannabinoids (eCB’s)

Endocannabinoids are small molecules produced by cells to help other cells deal with stress. More specifically, endocannabinoids are composed of fatty acids from any given cell’s lipid bilayer. They’re as natural as natural gets.

Endocannabinoids are propelled out of cellular surfaces in response to stress, which means they’re able to directly foster cellular adaptations. Keep in mind that physiological stress can take many forms; it can be caused by illness, but can also be caused by ‘good stressors’ like exercise or sunlight exposure. 

Regardless, cells that are stressed lose efficiency and swell up as their internal pressure builds. This is exactly when endocannabinoid get pushed into production. In other words, endocannabinoids are able to respond to stress on demand

Part Two: Endocannabinoid Receptors

Once in motion endocannabinoids ‘hit’ their respective endocannabinoid receptors, activating them almost like a lock gets opened by a key. Indeed, this type of activation potentially unlocks the door to a whole world of health benefits. The primary one? Neurotransmitter regulation… from which all sorts of positive effects flow. 

Basically, ECS receptors are located on presynaptic cells — the ones that normally send messages, not the ones that normally receive them. And that means their activation echoes throughout the presynaptic neuron loudly enough for other neurotransmitters to hear it. 

Together with endocannabinoids, ECS receptors form a positive feedback loop that helps regulate hormones like serotonin and GABA, all while helping activate electricity-based neurotransmission itself. 

There are two major types of ECS receptors, appropriately called CB1 and CB2. CB1 is primarily active in the brain, so it’s more psychotropic, while CB2 is mostly active within vital organs like the digestive tract. 

Part Three: Endocannabinoid Enzymes

Endocannabinoids are produced in huge quantities in order to keep the body in balance. But because they’re produced so quickly, a clearance mechanism of some sort is required to keep eCB’s themselves in proper balance. 

That’s where enzymes come in. Some break their favorite endocannabinoids down, others build them back up. As always, the human body favors thriftiness. There’s no need to create new endocannabinoids when you can just recycle their components. 

There are several known breakdown enzymes, the most critical called FAAH, and several known synthesizing enzymes. Interestingly enough, cannabinoids like CBD may work through partially preventing FAAH from doing its job, which results in a buildup of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream. But we’ll talk more about how cannabinoids impact the ECS in a minute!

As we said, the endocannabinoid system is pretty complex. Thankfully you don’t have to understand its inner workings in order to benefit from its function…when in doubt, just remember balance

What About Plant Cannabinoids?

Excellent question. After all, there are two types of cannabinoids… the types we make, and the types that plants make. Endocannabinoids, and phytocannabinoids. 

When it comes to plant cannabinoid production, one plant rises above the rest: hemp. In addition to the now-famous cannabinoid CBD, it also produces THC, CBG, CBN, CBC, THCV, and more. In fact, more than one hundred cannabinoids and about as many terpenes (think of them as scent molecules) call hemp home.

Hemp’s unique blend of ingredients turns out to be the perfect way to vitalize and activate the ECS. That’s important, because the chronic stresses of modern life seem to have our endocannabinoid systems failing. 

So far we’ve mentioned the positive aspects of the endocannabinoid system: its major functions, adaptability, and seemingly-intuitive nature. 

But the ECS isn’t invincible. Subject it to stress for long enough, and even it can falter. The struggle can be compounded by nutritional factors, too. 

Remember how we mentioned that endocannabinoids are fat-soluble? They have omega-3, 6 & 9 fatty acids as their building blocks; if one eats a diet devoid of these essential fatty acids, they won’t be able to produce enough endocannabinoids in the first place. Sadly, many Americans fall into this category.

A Widespread Deficiency — And a Near-Universal Solution

In the early 2000s, a neurologist named Dr. Ethan Russo proposed a very controversial theory. He claimed that many common diseases were actually caused by an internal deficiency in cannabinoids. Dr. Russo caused this theoretical disease CECDS, or Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome. 

CECDS makes sense, intuitively speaking, when you consider the pervasive impact our endocannabinoid systems have on our health. Without the ECS maintaining balance and homeostasis, things could fall apart quickly. Physiological systems could lose their communicative abilities, and the weakest link in the proverbial chain could break. At that point, disease could — probably would! — result. 

Dr. Russo highlighted a few diseases he thought were most likely to have endocannabinoid deficiencies as their culprits, including chronic migraines and fibromyalgia. Yet the concept rings true for all of us; indeed, we’re all subjected to stressors that deplete our homeostatic reserves. 

And all of us, up until just a few years ago, haven’t had the ability to take CBD. 

But now things are changing. After decades of misinformation and prohibition, CBD has experienced an amazing resurgence! We at Kentucky Crafted couldn’t be more thankful about that. 

How to Activate Your Endocannabinoid System

So, how exactly does CBD boost the ECS and its endocannabinoid levels? Once again, it’s complex. It’s also holistic — unlike many pharmaceuticals, CBD doesn’t act in isolation on any one receptor or bodily system. Instead it works through gentle interactions with many different systems, some of which are still in the process of being discovered and understood.

How CBD Works, Way One

CBD may inhibit endocannabinoid breakdown enzymes, especially FAAH, as we mentioned before. CBD may also boost the function of synthesis enzymes. The research has been inconclusive about these mechanisms, but at least one study puts enough faith in FAAH-inhibition to call it a “therapeutic opportunity”.

How CBD Works, Way Two

CBD could make endocannabinoid receptors more sensitive. Endocannabinoid receptors belong to a common receptor family (the GPCR family) that shares a certain shape, kind of like a basket woven through the cell membrane with a tail on the end. 

CBD may cause what researchers call conformational changes in these receptors. In other words, CBD may open up the ‘basket’ and allow larger amounts of endocannabinoids to saturate their receptors. 

How CBD Works, Way Three

CBD could bind to endocannabinoid receptors themselves. This is actually pretty rare — CBD has a “low affinity” for endocannabinoid receptors — but it might still bind to CB2. Direct activation of these receptors by CBD might result in stability and a sense of calm at the molecular level. 

How CBD Works, Way Four

CBD may bind directly to other types of receptors. That’s especially true of the TRP channels that influence our inflammation levels and perception of heat. CBD may also encourage endocannabinoid receptors to work with other receptors, notably the brain’s serotonin receptors, to produce stabilizing mental effects. Overall, the molecule is very versatile.

Much More to Learn

The intricacy of how CBD works is pretty staggering, and it’ll likely be many years before scientists even begin to have it all figured out. Working from the inside out, CBD might promote overall health in ways that are gentle yet highly effective. Reductions in inflammation and stress tend to trickle down into more significant health benefits. 

And all this is only made possible thanks to the endocannabinoid system, which works quietly behind the scenes to keep us balanced and stress-free. As Neuroscientist Greg Gerdeman says, “there’s so much we don’t know yet. But it’s fascinating that this system acts at so many different levels that are related to health and wellbeing.”