Five reasons your endocannabinoid system might be out of whack
Have you heard about the complex biological system working tirelessly to keep all living beings in good health? It’s called the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and is said to help us “relax, eat, sleep, protect and forget.”
Sometimes this ‘balancing system’ gets out of whack, with diseases such as fibromyalgia, MS and IBS attributed to its deficiency, and obesity and metabolic conditions associated with its over activation.
So why has it remained such a big secret?
Firstly, the fact that the ECS relates to cannabis-like chemicals made by the body that, along with key receptors, form a biological system keeping all living beings in perfect equilibrium, might have something to do with it.
Not only that, the endocannabinoid system’s complex balancing action, which has been likened to a ‘dimmer switch’ – turning up or down everything from inflammation, appetite, electrical activity in the brain, cell death and the immune response – is also activated by compounds found in cannabis – a naturally occurring plant. This doesn’t go down terribly well in certain quarters where the plant is illegal and/or still viewed as having no therapeutic effect.
Still, exist it does and just like any other biological system in the body, it sometimes needs a helping hand to combat the damage inflicted by our modern lifestyles laden with stress, poor diet and a lack of sleep.
Here are the top 5 bad habits compromising our endocannabinoid system and what simple steps we can take to keep ours working in perfect balance.
The Endocannabinoid system only discovered in the 1990s, comprises a vast network of receptors (CB1 and CB2) found mostly in the central nervous system, brain and immune system. They interact with cannabis-like chemicals called endocannabinoids – Anandamide and 2-AG – bringing about biological effects such as reducing inflammation and protecting our bodies against stress.
Scientists are only really in the early days of understanding its function, but have observed that the endocannabinoid system plays an important role in metabolic conditions such as diabetes and obesity.
In recent research carried out on rodents fed on a western style diet, an abnormally large desire for high fat/sugar foods was accompanied by elevated levels of endocannabinoids and dysregulated CB1 receptor activity in comparison to mice eating a normal diet.
The mice basically had a severe case of the munchies, something often experienced by cannabis consumers, as THC, one of the main compounds in the plant, also activates the CB1 receptor, bringing about an intense feeling of hunger. But what scientists are unclear of in the case of obesity, is whether a dysfunctional endocannabinoid system is a contributing factor towards the disease, or whether overeating causes it to become overstimulated in the first place.
The answer perhaps lies in the paper The dysregulation of the endocannabinoid system in diabesity—a tricky problem, in which it describes how increased body fat can itself augment endocannabinoid activity, as fat cells are capable of making yet more endocannabinoids. Not only that, in obese subjects, levels of Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH), the enzyme responsible for breaking down Anandamide, is found to be lower, which means more anandamide is present in the body. Scientists believe there is a link between insulin resistance, a condition commonly associated with obesity, and a lower FAAH expression.
It thus becomes a chicken and egg situation in which insulin resistance may be a contributor to “the increased endocannabinoid tone in obesity and not just a consequence of increased endocannabinoid levels. Vice versa, elevated ECs increase adiposity and, as a consequence, cause further insulin resistance, starting and perpetuating a vicious cycle.”
Either way, the good news is that research shows by employing a sensible weight loss programme of reduced calorie intake and exercise, endocannabinoid levels level off with 2-AG in particular dropping by 71%. Scientists associate this endocannabinoid downregulation with an overall drop in body fat and insulin resistance, plus improved cholesterol levels. So yet another reason to put down the donuts and take out that gym membership.
2. Not enough Omega 3 in your diet
While it’s important to have a balanced diet, this doesn’t mean cutting out all fats. Incorporating the right amount of essential fatty acids like omega 3 and 6 is crucial to our health. In fact the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG are derived from omega 6 and as a result are partly regulated by a dietary intake of both essential fatty acids, which should be consumed in a ratio of three parts omega 3 to one part omega 6.
Unfortunately, in the west with our predilection for processed foods, omega 6 intake tends to dominate, which over-excites the endocannabinoid system. The resulting omega 3 deficiency corresponds with lower levels of DHA in the brain, which is believed can lead to a decline in cognitive function, mental disorders, increased levels of degenerative disease, chronic inflammation and joint pain.
This is supported by research in which scientists found that mice deficient in omega 3 experienced an uncoupling of the CB1 receptors, which in turn brought about “a change in the body’s mood controlling structures associated with impaired emotional behaviour.”
Conversely, in a study carried out on mice given a diet rich in omega 3, their brain DHA levels increased, while the body’s endocannabinoids lowered, suggesting “this nutritional approach with dietary omega-3, reversed the dysregulation of the cannabinoid system, improved insulin sensitivity and decreased central body fat.”
The solution then is simple, cut out refined and processed food and incorporate Omega 3 rich, ethically sourced and contaminant free oily fish, or organic seeds like hemp, flax or chia.
3. Chronic Stress
Who isn’t stressed right now? The Dalai Lama maybe, but that’s about it. For most of us each day is a matter of chasing our tails, breathing a sigh of relief when we reach its end, before mustering the mettle to start all over again the following morning. In the west anxiety disorders have reached epidemic levels and stress is recognised as a factor contributing to a whole host of serious illnesses ranging from cancer, autoimmune and heart disease.
Chronic stress is also a major cause of what has been termed ‘clinical endocannabinoid deficiency’, a concept originally posited by neurologist and researcher Dr Ethan Russo. In an interview with Project CBD, he describes how an endocannabinoid deficiency would involve ‘‘pain where there shouldn’t be pain. You would be sick, meaning nauseated. You would have a lowered seizure threshold. And just a whole litany of other problems.” Russo sees a pattern between these symptoms and a number of conditions that until now modern medicine has found difficult to treat, namely migraine, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and fibromyalgia.
Studies have shown that chronic stress impairs the endocannabinoid system, generally reducing levels of the feel good endocannabinoid anandamide and the stress buffer 2-AG. While most research has been carried out on animal models, individuals showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have low levels of 2-AG, similar in magnitude to major depression.
Stress reduction techniques abound such as meditation, yoga and acupuncture. But it’s interesting to note that some of them have a measurable effect on the endocannabinoid system. Exercise for example, which has been proven to be as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression, increases levels of anandamide in the brain, contributing to the euphoric feeling known as ‘runner’s high’. And osteopathy, the manipulation of soft and hard tissue to bring about holistic health, was found to elevate anandamide by 168% compared to pretreatment levels.
Another alternative that can bolster endocannabinoid tone and reduce stress at the same time, is taking the plant based cannabinoid Cannabidiol CBD, which not only raises anandamide levels by inhibiting the metabolizing enzyme FAAH, but has also been shown to reduce anxiety through its role as a partial agonist to the serotonin receptor 5HT1-A. In layman’s terms this means the non-psychoactive cannabinoid binds to the receptor just enough to bring about an anti-anxiety effect, without the high feeling associated with THC.
4. Drinking too much alcohol
Keeping your endocannabinoid system in good order isn’t about cutting out all the pleasures in life, so when it comes to alcohol, having the odd drink isn’t a problem. Scientists have found that the effect of alcohol is dose dependent: drink a little and endocannabinoid levels (in this case 2-AG) rise a little, drink a lot and they increase accordingly. It’s suggested this is the endocannabinoid carrying out its work as a neuroprotector and when the acute alcohol intake is over, levels return to normal again.
However, the trouble starts when the occasional tipple becomes a more chronic problem, bringing about a decline in endocannabinoid signalling and deficient endocannabinoid levels. In the paper Endocannabinoid signaling in neurotoxicity and neuroprotection, the authors suggest “long-term, high dose alcohol exposure may induce adaptations in eCB signaling that contribute to the maladaptive stress responses, anxiety and depression associated with acute and prolonged withdrawal in human alcoholics and alcohol-dependent rodents.”
So in basic terms, someone who has a problem with alcohol will eventually deplete their endocannabinoid system, a consequence of which will be a difficulty to cope with stressful situations. This overwhelm and stress will prompt them to seek solace in more alcohol, which will further feed the vicious circle.
According to Project CBD’s Martin Lee in his article ‘Alcoholism and the Endocannabinoid System’, “if alcoholism is an endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome, then it makes perfect sense that people might successfully wean themselves from booze by smoking marijuana, which triggers cannabinoid receptor signalling.” Only recently a LA rehab centre has announced it is allowing the use of cannabis as part of their treatment for addictions, viewing it as an exit drunk rather than a gateway to addiction.
If you believe you have a problem with alcohol, talk to a counsellor or consider contacting Alcoholics Anonymous. You could also boost your endocannabinoid system by eating Omega 3 rich foods and doing exercise.
5. Lack of sleep
Have you ever noticed how after a night of sleep deprivation, you feel ravenously hungry the next day? Research has shown that not getting enough sleep causes the endocannabinoid 2-AG to increase by 80%. They also noted that the tired participants felt the overwhelming urge to gorge themselves on junk food, which scientists attributed to the overstimulation of the CB1 receptors, causing the same ‘munchies’ sensation experienced by cannabis users.
This is probably not an issue if your lack of sleep is just an occasional problem, but if it occurs on a more long term basis, it will inevitably lead to excessive weight gain, and potentially the associated health risks, such as diabetes, heart disease and as mentioned previously, an overstimulated endocannabinoid system.
If sleep deprivation is due to a busy lifestyle of burning the candle at both ends, consider cutting out a few social activities that keep you up at night. However, if sleep loss is out of your hands in the case of mothers of infants and night shift workers, try banishing all naughty snacks and only allow yourself fresh, healthy bites when the munchies get the better of you.
So, there you have it. Not exactly rocket science, right?
We all know that eating healthily, exercising, relaxation, drinking less alcohol and getting enough sleep are key to feeling great. It’s just that now there’s an added incentive – to give the endocannabinoid system the best chance of keeping our health in balance.