The endocannabinoid system, hemp, and CBD: The bigger picture

September 18, 2019

The 1990s were an important decade of innovation that saw a remarkable medical discovery about the human body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS can be described as an intricate physiological system utilizing cannabinoids produced in the body (endocannabinoids) and the receptors they attach to. At the helm of this unearthing was the work of Raphael Mechoulam, PhD, of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and several colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S. Due to politics and the stigma attached to cannabis and cannabinoids, ECS research was previously buried, and many of the findings about the plant’s medicinal value was diverted outside of the U.S.—a true medical travesty. Fortunately, research and education is slowly disassembling this unjustified besmirchment, and we are just beginning to appreciate the ECS and its role in health and disease, even as marketplace obstacles abound for hemp cannabinoids.

The ECS refers to a complex network of receptors found on all cells that accept cannabinoids (CB1 and CB2), as well as the endogenous cannabinoids we produce in the body (such as the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG) and the enzymes involved with their production and degradation—what some call our “endocannabidiome.” In addition to anandamide and 2-AG, other lipid-based molecules have also been classified as endocannabinoids due to their effects on cannabinoid receptors, including N-arachidonoyl dopamine, virodhamine, palmitoylethanolamide, oleoylethanolamide, and several byproducts of omega-3 fatty acids.

Our endocannabinoids are produced on demand, and they exert widespread adaptive cellular responses to a variety of internal and external stressors that can jeopardize health. When cannabinoids activate the CB1 receptors, analgesic, vasodilation, and inflammatory markers indicating inflammation reduction have been noted. When the CB2 receptors are activated, the following effects have been described in the literature: immune modulation, T cell regulation, the curbing of abnormal cell growth, reduced inflammation, repairing of bone, and several other functions.

Acting as the conductor of our body’s physiological symphony, the ECS’s signaling pathways are in constant communication with every organ system and globally act as the modulator of activity to maintain balance and well-being (homeostasis). At the organ level, once endocannabinoids attach to our receptors, they influence important regulatory mechanisms that govern major physiological processes, including stress, anxiety, pain, inflammation, insomnia, ocular health, bone repair, neurological well-being, and cancer, to name a few. Essentially, the ECS is implicated in the adaptogenic control of the most vital processes, thus creating stability in the body.

There are times when we do not produce enough endocannabinoids and must rely on dietary cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids) to help support the ECS. Hemp is the richest source of these phytocannbinoids. And while phytocannabinoids hold great promise for health and as a viable market, the market currently faces numerous challenges that have been difficult to surmount.

The Value of Phytocannabinoids

Nutritional and botanical medicine is barely more than a century old. As we grasp the incredible roles the ECS plays in keeping us in balance and its involvement in disease prevention and treatment, we will learn to appreciate how hemp-derived phytocannabinoids will play pivotal roles in nutrition and medicine. This is further supported by the enormous amount of research published on the manipulation or support of the ECS in neurological, inflammatory, cardiovascular, and ocular conditions; bone disorders; as well as cancer. There is overwhelming evidence that our endocannabidiome is a target of choice for many diseases that may be suitably treated with hemp phytocannabinoids.

While the ECS and phytocannabinoids have been studied in detail, the clinical value in many disease models requires continued research and clinical trials. The hemp plant (Cannabis sativa L.) contains over a hundred different phytocannabinoids which collectively provide a full spectrum of supportive activity. Research demonstrates that this shared participation among the phytocannabinoids is responsible for optimal dose ranges and better clinical outcomes when compared to singling out any particular one cannabinoid such as cannabidiol (CBD).

While CBD has recently grabbed the spotlight primarily due to GW Pharmaceuticals’ CBD-based FDA-approved drug, its effects can be greatly enhanced by support from the rest of the phytocannabinoid family. This has been a major tenet of botanical medicine and was beautifully described as the “entourage effect” by Dr. Ethan Russo.

Dr. Mechoulam, mentioned at the beginning of this article, also said it best when he stated that, “Biochemically active natural products are in many instances accompanied by chemically related though biologically inactive constituents. Very seldom is the biological activity of the active constituent assayed together with inactive ‘entourage’ compounds. Investigations of the effect of the active component in the presence of its ‘entourage’ compounds may lead to results that differ from those observed with the active component only.”

It’s important to underscore the intricate interplay of CBD and other important phytocannabinoids with various receptors in the body. While CBD has tremendous medical benefits, it cannot support the entire ECS on its own—period.