There aren’t many times you’re as aware of your body as when you’re engaged in intense, physical exercise. Your muscles contract, your heart thuds in your chest, a myriad of chemicals flow through your bloodstream. Many aspects of your physical being that you might ordinarily take for granted come into sharp focus. So, it’s unsurprising that fitness enthusiasts and athletes often find themselves immersed in a new fascination with how the body works – and how you can support it to get the most out of your workouts. How can you increase your own odds?
Athlete or not, you’re probably already aware that our major physiological systems are absolutely vital for keeping the body going, not just during exercise, but all the time. We know the importance of the digestive system, central nervous system, the endocrine system and the immune system to name a few. But there’s one that really stands out, one we’re still not taught at school (not even medical school!), and it just so happens to be the regulator of all others: The endocannabinoid system.
What is the endocannabinoid system?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex network of receptors which can be found throughout the body – not just the human body, but in vertebrate and invertebrate animals, plants and even some shellfish. Since its discovery in 1992, it’s been the subject of over 41,000 studies and referred to as “the most important physiological system involved in establishing and maintaining human health”. It can be found within all other physiological systems, in our muscles tissue, bones, brain, in every skin cell and right the way deep down into mitochondrial cell walls. As a result, it’s heavily involved in almost all bodily processes including mood, the inflammatory response, pain transmission, sleep, appetite, fertility, memory and much more.
Unlike our other major physiological systems, the ECS is intertwined with just about everything and it primarily acts as the body’s homeostatic regulator – the thing that keeps all aspects of the body in balance. So, if you’re really looking to improve your fitness, and health, then looking after your ECS is crucial.
How does the endocannabinoid system work?
The body is always striving to rebalance itself, as this allows it to function at it’s very best. But, a huge range of things can throw this preferred state off balance, from chronic stress, poor sleep, injury, illness or delayed onset muscles soreness from rigorous exercise.
It’s the endocannabinoid system’s job to make sure that all parts of the body are working as they should, to restore equilibrium. It’s your job to make sure your ECS is getting as much support as possible to make this restoration as quick and easy as possible.
There are two main ECS receptors that play an integral part in this: CB1 and CB2.
- CB1 can be found in the highest concentration in parts of the brain, central nervous system and organs including the adrenal gland, heart, lungs, prostate, uterus and ovaries.
- CB2 is most abundant in our peripheral nervous system and the immune system.
- Our skin cells and reproductive organs are rich with both.
In addition, there are also two well-studied endocannabinoids (chemical messengers which directly activate these receptors) that are naturally synthesised and released on demand to kick the ECS into gear and help bring balance back to the body. These are called Anandamide (named after the Sanskrit word for Bliss) and 2-AG. They’re largely responsible for the euphoric runner’s high sensation, which happens when we’re testing ourselves to the limit and we need more help than usual to push through and recover.
Both endocannabinoids fit like a lock and key into different ECS receptors, and relay messages about conditions from the outside of cells (perhaps indicating elevated levels of stress or inflammation) into the cells, in order to trigger the appropriate balancing response. Once the endocannabinoids have done their job, they are broken down by fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH enzyme).
What is an endocannabinoid deficiency?
A leading cannabis researcher, Dr Ethan Russo, coined the term ‘endocannabinoid deficiency’ to describe when our endocannabinoids, Anandamide and 2-AG, are not produced appropriately. It’s thought this can happen as a result of physiological and psychological stressors including poor diet, poor sleep, lack of exercise and chronic stress.
When our endocannabinoids are not produced as and when needed, the ECS is unable to regulate the inner workings of the body. The result? Just about any ailment you can think of. One 2016 paper reviewing over 10 years of ECS research even suggests that an endocannabinoid deficiency may be at the heart of fibromyalgia, IBS and migraines.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to support endocannabinoid production and efficiency – the most promising of which is the use of cannabis-derived phytocannabinoids, such as CBD.
When you add a daily dose of CBD into your lifestyle, you’re giving your body a gentle nudge to do what is does best. Unlike other cannabinoids, such as THC and CBG, the CBD molecule doesn’t directly activate the ECS, but rather it modulates the ECS receptors to ensure a healthy uptake of our naturally produced endocannabinoids. This supports your body in working as it should, hopefully nudging it to function fully by itself in the long-term when used in conjunction with regular exercise and healthy lifestyle choices. Consider it a helping hand when you need it most.
Extraordinarily, CBD does directly activate a number of other receptors throughout the body, including certain serotonin receptors and vanilloid receptors, triggering the immediate release of these neurotransmitters which may otherwise be lacking, potentially as a result of an endocannabinoid deficiency. We know these particular neurotransmitters play a huge role in many functions such as mood, sleep, inflammation and pain transmission, so the difference you may notice from just a few drops a day could be transformational – both for your fitness regime and your life in general.
It may seem a bit much to absorb – after all, most of us are used to just taking our inner workings as they come without delving into the details. However, understanding how your body works is the first step towards understanding how to better your wellbeing, and give yourself the support you need to thrive. In a nutshell, the endocannabinoid system plays a role like no other – overseeing and regulating almost every aspect of our physical being, from mood to sleep, digestion to pain transmission. So, whether you’re interested in learning about how CBD oil interacts with the body, or just discovering a little more about yourself, the ECS is the perfect place to start.