5 Ways To Support Your Endocannabinoid System
You probably haven't heard of your Endocannabinoid System, but it's so vital to our overall health that we really need to keep talking about it until its as common as hearing about say...our immune system!
Our Endocannabinoid System (ECS) was discovered in the late 80's while researchers were studying the effects of cannabis on the body. That’s where it got its name. It’s a very complex system of signaling and regulation involving neurotransmitters.
The ECS is the system that steps in when something becomes dysregulated or imbalanced. It does this by producing endocannabinoids which bind to cannabinoid receptors located throughout the body, influencing the activity of cells and the release of neurotransmitters to create a balance that keeps the body in a stable and healthy state. These receptors and molecules are pretty much everywhere: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, immune cells, and skin.
Our body naturally produces endocannabinoids, two of which are best-known through research: anandamide (AEA), also referred to as "the bliss molecule", and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-ag). They do not exist indefinitely though. Our body makes them as needed, and once they've signaled via our receptors they are broken down soon after by metabolic enzymes.
Research has revealed that, for some of us, the endocannabinoid system doesn't function as it should. There are many, often complex, reasons for this, but the good news is that you can support its role by supplementing with phytocannabinoids - the compounds found in hemp that mimic our natural endocannabinoids.
If you want to do a deep dive on the ECS, especially how it relates to our skin's health, go read my journal entry on phytocannabinoids and how they engage with our ECS.
Aside from using hemp, there are other natural healthy habits one can deploy to assist the ECS in staying strong and functioning optimally. I'm going to share five, very doable, practices you can implement today to ensure you are supporting your ECS, so it can keep supporting you.
How Can I Strengthen My Endocannabinoid System?
1. Eat Healthy Food & Lots of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Endocannabinoids are synthesized from the healthy fats we eat, like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They're super important because they help manage things like inflammation and pain in our bodies.
Humans evolved eating roughly an equal balance of omega-6 and omega-3, but our current western diets lean more towards omega-6 intake of cereals or grains and are lacking in the omega-3 rich foods like nuts, seeds, berries and leafy greens. This creates a steep imbalance between these essential fatty acids (essential because our body doesn't make them, relying only on food to get them, and they are critical to our survival).
Research shows that our CB1 receptors, which are concentrated in the brain and nervous system and play a role in inflammatory processes, rely heavily omega-3. A diet lacking in omega-3 has been shown to inhibit proper functioning of the CB1 receptor. In contrast, too much omega-3 supplementation showed a decrease in endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG. What's more is that anandamide and 2-AG are chemically derived from arachidonic acid, one of four major types of omega-6 fatty acids.
What this suggests is that maintaining a proper balance between omgea-3 and omega-6 appears to be critical for the ECS as well as influencing how our body deals with inflammation. Shooting for a 3:1 ratio is ideal (omega-6 to omega-3).
Foods with a balanced ratio of omega-3 and 6 are hemp seeds (surprise, surprise), chia & flax seeds, fresh fish, grass-fed meat, pasture-raised eggs, green vegetables, fresh fruit. The important thing though is keeping a balance of omega-3 rich foods to omega-6 rich foods. Some will naturally be higher in one over the other. A balanced diet full of variety with plenty of organic produce and specifying grass-fed or pasture-raised animal products is the way to go.
2. Prioritize Body Movement
Physical activity is essential for the ECS as exercise triggers the release of the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG, contributing to a sense of well-being and relaxation.
You may have heard of the “runners high” which was previously believed to be a release of endorphins, but now we know it is actually the release of anandamide, aka “the bliss molecule.” When you exercise your muscles produce endocannabinoids which then enter your bloodstream, travel to your brain and stimulate the parts responsible for pleasure and reward.
There remains a degree of uncertainty surrounding the ideal type of exercise for fostering optimal ECS support. Nevertheless, it is widely acknowledged that engaging in joyful body movement and regular exercise can be powerful tools in managing weight loss and mood disorders, among numerous other conditions. Given this, there is nothing to lose by making time for movement and working up a sweat.
3. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
If I had to only choose one thing to prioritize, it would be sleep. It is imperative for sustaining overall health and optimal function in daily activities. It's the only way that we can truly repair and rejuvenate.
Lack of sleep sets off a chain of negative reactions in many different areas of the body. Seeing as how our ECS is our master regulatory system, it's no surprise that it would be directly involved and therefore affected by this.
Specifically, the ECS influences our circadian rhythm and appetite. Lack of proper sleep disrupts the balance of endocannabinoids in our system which can potentially increase pain sensitivity, promote stress, and confuse appetite regulation.
Normally, the endocannabinoid 2-AG peaks during mid-day and gradually lowers as bedtime approaches. However, without adequate sleep, 2-AG levels can spike higher than normal and stay elevated for longer which triggers an increase in appetite, and disrupted signals to wind down. So, basically you stay up too late and snack.
Good sleep hygiene means you set the stage for success in the bedroom. No lights, no phone, nice and cool, and make sure you create a routine that triggers your body to realize that it's about time to go to sleep again. Things like journaling, reading, or a special skincare/bodycare ritual are all very helpful.
4. Get A Handle On Stress
The ECS is closely connected to the HPA axis, which is a system in our body that controls our response to stress. The ECS is responsible for modulating how our HPA axis responds, what it secretes and helps to manage how we deal with long-term stress, how we think, and how anxious we feel.
Chronic stress negatively impacts the ECS by altering the natural levels of anandamide and 2-AG and a loss of CB1 receptors. This creates a negative feedback loop that perpetuates the feeling of stress and induces feelings of anxiousness.
Spending more time in nature, practicing deep breathing, meditation, and doing more activities that bring you joy can help break the cycle, giving your ECS a chance to restore.
5. Use Phytocannabinoids
Phytocannabinoids are the compounds found in cannabis that mimic the ones we produce naturally and work as adaptogens to support a healthy ECS in a way that is unique to the individual.
It can be helpful to use a tincture before bed, or a topical product if you have muscular/joint discomfort or skin imbalances. Start with a low dose and adjust as needed. Each of us are in different states of balance and our needs will vary, so there are no hard and fast rules on how much to use. Listen to your body and enjoy the process.
Will taking CBD solve all my problems?
What's interesting is that we already knew that the first 4 points mentioned above support good health, but we didn't always understand that it was due to the fact that those habits are specifically supporting our ECS which in turn modulates the balanced functioning of all the other systems in our body.
The use of CBD and the other molecules found in hemp is the new variable in the big picture of our overall health. But that doesn't mean you can just take your CBD tincture or gummy and assume you're covered and go back to eating chips and ice cream while lounging all day. Supplementing with hemp must be done in combination with the other practices in order to truly see long term results. Thankfully, using hemp extracts can often help us better achieve our goals with sleep quality and stress reduction.
Furthermore, CBD isn't the cure-all molecule. What it's actually doing is supporting extended circulation of the endocannabinoids your body is already making. It lets them hang around longer before enzymes break them down so that your inherent system can do its job better.
I think it's important to remember that we have everything we need inside us already. Our lifestyle choices can throw a wrench in things, but herbs - not just hemp - can be the safe and gentle nudge we need to get back on track.