How to stimulate the endocannabinoid system without cannabis
When people hear about all of the different health conditions that cannabis can help with, some might wonder how one herb can have so many powerful medical properties without any serious side effects.
This question led researchers to discover a system of physiology working within all of us to constantly maintain homeostasis –or balance– at a cellular level. It was named the endogenous cannabinoid system (endocannabinoid) after the plant that led to its identification. It is one of the most important physiologic systems involved in establishing and maintaining human health.
Most of us don’t realize that our bodies are making cannabinoids all the time. These molecules function a lot like THC and the other cannabinoids found in the plant. Our cells produce and use cannabinoids in precise ways to respond to stress, illness, and injury, thus keeping you healthy. There’s evidence that some people’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) may not be functioning optimally; this can be addressed by adding the right dosage of supplemental cannabinoids from the plant cannabis.
Beyond cannabis, however, certain foods and activities can also help the ECS function optimally, improve your health, and enhance the effectiveness of medical cannabis.
Essential fatty acids, chocolate, herbs, spices, and tea can naturally stimulate the ECS.
Essential fatty acids
A healthy ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can enhance the activity of the ECS. Endocannabinoids are produced from arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. Having enough arachidonic acid is essential for endocannabinoid production, but having too much may lead to down-regulation of cannabinoid receptors. (Excessive omega-6 intake is also pro-inflammatory. Most western diets already contain an excess of omega-6 oils, commonly found in cooking oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, and soy, and in animal products like meat, poultry, and eggs.)
Omega-3 fatty acids are needed to balance the omega-6 fats so the ECS can function properly. These fatty acids are much harder to come by in the diet, and are also proven to have cardiovascular and neurological health benefits. An ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in the diet is 1:1, and the typical western diet often has a 1:10 ratio. Animal sources of omega-3 are the most potent, but the vegetarian sources tend to provide other excellent health benefits.
Sources of endocannabinoid-enhancing fatty acids:
- Hemp seeds and hemp oil
- Flax seeds (grind at home in a coffee grinder) and flax oil
- Chia seeds
- Sardines and anchovies
- Eggs (pasture-fed or omega-3 enriched only)
Cacao powder contains three compounds that are structurally very similar to endocannabinoids. These compounds can inhibit the breakdown of your body’s own endocannabinoids, resulting in higher endocannabinoid levels, and may have some cannabinoid activity of their own. The content of cannabinoid-like compounds in chocolate varies widely and is highest in dark chocolate and raw cacao. Other compounds in chocolate may be able to help prevent heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Look for at least 70% dark chocolate, or try adding raw cacao nibs to smoothies or cereal!
Herbs and tea
Numerous herbs and teas contain compounds that can enhance the ECS. Beta-caryophyllene is a terpene found in black pepper, lemon balm, hops, cloves, cannabis, oregano, cinnamon, and several other herbs. It selectively stimulates the CB2 receptor, a sought-after property in the development of treatments for inflammatory disorders.
- Echinacea, often used by herbalists for up to two weeks to stimulate the immune system during infections, also contains CB2 agonists.
- Camelia sinensis, commonly known as “tea,” contains a compound that prevents the breakdown of endocannabinoids, and another compound that may stimulate the cannabinoid receptors.
- Turmeric, the yellow spice in curry powder, contains curcumin, which also raises endocannabinoid levels amongst numerous other health benefits.
Eat organic and avoid plastic
Certain pesticides (e.g. chlorpyrifos and piperonyl butoxide) are known to disrupt the ECS. It’s especially important to choose organic foods when shopping for meat, dairy, and the highest pesticide-containing produce. Phthalates, frequently added to plastic and tin food containers and water bottles, are known to block cannabinoid receptors and disrupt the body’s hormonal system. Choose glass or stainless steel food containers and packaging whenever possible, and never eat food that’s been heated in plastic.
Regular use of moderate to high quantities of alcohol can also impair the ECS, so for optimal health and endocannabinoid function, please use moderation when drinking or avoid alcohol entirely.
Certain activities can naturally enhance the ECS’s function, improve your health, increase the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis, and help you feel great.
While chronic stress can deplete your ECS, a highly tuned ECS can protect you from the detrimental effects of stress. Incorporating exercise into your daily routine will keep your ECS well-tuned, but only if you enjoy it! Animal studies teach us that if you force yourself to exercise, your ECS will interpret the activity as stress, but freely choosing and enjoying the same activity can have the opposite effect of stress and actually increase endocannabinoid levels. Socializing can also be great for stress reduction and enhancing ECS function. Rats in social isolation produced less cannabinoid receptors, while social play and grooming behavior increased function of the ECS.
Here are a few suggested endocannabinoid-enhancing and health-promoting activities:
- Social interaction
- Unstructured play time (this is important for adults too!)
- Osteopathic Manipulation (OMT)
- Breathing exercises
- Any voluntary and enjoyable exercise
The wellness section at Healer.com features simple exercises that are easy for everyone and designed to stimulate the ECS and augment the effects of cannabis.
Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. In each tissue, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment. Your body naturally produces its own cannabinoids. Proper dosages of cannabis can also up-regulate and tonify your ECS. The plant, however, is not the only way to support your ECS. You can stimulate your ECS naturally with delicious endocannabinoid-enhancing foods and enjoyable activities which can lead to widespread health benefits.
3 Ways to Boost Your Endocannabinoid System (Without Cannabis)
Experts have attributed CBD oil with everything from reducing anxiety to pain relief – it's no wonder that it's one of the most talked-about supplements of 2018. But while CBD oil can certainly be a huge help, it's not the only – or even necessarily the best – way to keep your endocannabinoid system in tip-top shape.
What's the Endocannabinoid System?
To understand the benefits of CBD oil, one first needs to grasp the inner workings of the endocannabinoid system. This network within the human body is comprised of neurotransmitters and receptors involved in regulating physiological, cognitive, and nervous properties. Mood, memory, pain, and more are affected by the endocannabinoid system in myriad ways – many of which we have yet to identify.
“The endocannabinoid system,” explains Green Relief, “is the ultimate balance system of our bodies that yearns to achieve homeostasis. It keeps everything in check: circulatory, digestive, endocrine, muscular and nervous systems (just to name some of the systems that keep you chugging along).”
Despite being such an essential part of our health and wellbeing, however, the endocannabinoid system is relatively new, at least as far as our understanding of human physiology is concerned: its very existence was only discovered in 1988.
We have since found that two primary endocannabinoid receptors exist: CB1 receptors, primarily found in the brain and nervous system, and CB2 receptors, found elsewhere in the body. Cannabinoid compounds like cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), both of which are found in cannabis, interact with these receptors.
But CBD and THC, while certainly the best known, are far from the only cannabinoids in existence; in fact, in 1992, scientists discovered that the human body actually makes its own. These cannabinoids are known as endocannabinoids and are distinguished from phytocannabinoids, found in plants.
Phytocannabinoids: An Ever-Growing Alphabet Soup of Compounds
The cannabis plant contains more than 80 different cannabinoids, many of which we still know very little about.
Of those that have been studied, one major phytocannabinoid is CBN or cannabinol. An oxidized version of THC, CBN has been identified as a possible sleep aid as well as a possible antibacterial agent.
CBG – cannabigerol – is another important cannabinoid, touted by Green Relief as the “granddaddy” of them all.
“It’s the cannabinoid that is the starting point for THC, CBD, and CBC,” explains the outlet, which notes that this phytocannabinoid stimulates appetite, bone growth and brain cells and suppresses cancer cells, seizures, and inflammation.
CBC (cannabichromene) is one of the oldest known cannabinoids and may have pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties.
Phytocannabinoids are certainly present in cannabis, but there are also other plants that contain cannabinoids.
Emerald Health Bio is one company producing a line of products featuring PhytoCann, a proprietary, cannabis-free cannabinoid supplement made with a blend of herbs and botanicals. PhytoCann was found in a recent in-vitro study to impact more targets than CBD or THC alone or in combination. The company produces several different blends to target different issues, including sleep issues, anxiety, and inflammation.
Do We Need External Cannabinoids?
While phytocannabinoids have certainly been shown to help with conditions including anxiety, pain, and even cancer, some researchers warn against using them as a blanket "cure" for all of your woes.
“This idea that cannabis or CBD is like a vitamin and everyone should take it. I've heard this said, but it's always by somebody who's making a market in this product,” explains Cannabis Expert and Harvard Physician, Jordan Tishler, MD.
These experts draw a distinction between those in a disease state and those who are generally healthy. For the former group, explains Jade Beutler, CEO of Emerald Health Bioceuticals, phytocannabinoids can help support an endocannabinoid system that has been "beaten into submission" by a chronic ailment.
“If you're going to smoke, take, or eat CBD, THC, cannabis, marijuana, or our products, that's an outside influence, ” he says. “It’s a supplemental effect, and that’s a wonderful way to – in a manner of speaking – activate your endocannabinoid system, having an outside influence on an internal system.”
For these people, a product like CBD oil might be the right choice. To find out more about whether CBD oil could be right for you, check out our three-part guide to this supplement taking the natural health world by storm, including frequently asked questions about CBD oil, an exploration of the clinically proven benefits of CBD oil, and our vetted CBD oil buying guide.
For someone whose endocannabinoid system is already in a state of homeostasis, however, this isn’t necessary.
Feeling Blissed Out After a Yoga Session? The Reason May Lie Within the Body’s Endocannabinoid System
That high you can get from yoga may come from endocannabinoids — substances naturally produced by the body that are chemically similar to active compounds in cannabis (marijuana).
Although there’s a wide range of choices when it comes to wellness practices, yoga continues to rise to the top, both in terms of its growing popularity and its embodiment of the mind-body-spirit connection. Across yoga techniques and approaches, common elements include controlled breathing (mind), physical postures (body), and meditation (spirit), which often combine to create a state of bliss.
Even as researchers are trying to understand why and how yoga produces the bliss response, scores of scientists are investigating a part of the body known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). While the research connecting yoga and the ECS is virtually nonexistent, potential links might help explain their complementary roles in reducing stress.
What Is the Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system is believed to have evolved in humans more than 500 million years ago, with the primary role of maintaining balance (homeostasis) in the body.
The ECS relies on messengers (neurotransmitters) called endocannabinoids, a class of compounds that are chemically similar to plant cannabinoids — notably the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) in cannabis (marijuana). Endocannabinoids interact with special receptors located throughout the body in order to achieve homeostasis.
Scientists are exploring the two-way relationship between the ECS and the central nervous system, peripheral nervous system, immune system, digestive system, reproductive system, major organs, and many other parts of the body. The goal of these studies is to better understand how the ECS affects everything from sleep and appetite to pain sensation, mood, and stress.
The Enlightened Path and the Yoga Sutras
The yoga-ECS relationship can be traced as far back as 200 B.C., when an Indian sage named Pantañjali (also known as the father of yoga) is believed to have lived and written the Yoga Sutras, a manual for enlightenment. Many yoga practitioners point to the beginning of chapter 4, where Pantañjali mentions potions, possibly containing cannabis, that can help move one forward on the path toward liberation and enlightenment.
Today, experts hypothesize that like other forms of mind-body medicine, yoga may be a cannabimimetic — something that produces a cannabinoid-like effect — that works by stimulating one of the two key types of ECS receptors, called CB1.
CB1 is densely distributed in parts of the body involved with emotion, memory, and movement, explains Ethan Russo, MD, a neurologist and cannabis researcher based in Washington State. According to a review published in the December 2018 issue of Molecular Aspects of Medicine, it’s possible that mind-body practices such as yoga and tai chi boost mood by activating CB1 signals in the central nervous system.
So, whether ancient yogis used cannabis to enhance their yoga practice or their yoga practice activated the ECS, the relationship is believed to be dynamic.
The Evidence for a State of Bliss
Studies show that yoga has positive effects on mind-body interaction. “We know that meditation and yoga increase alpha rhythms [brain waves that indicate a state of wakeful rest], produce a subjective state of calm, and sometimes result in almost a blissful-like sensation,” says Dr. Russo.
This is where things get interesting, because while scientists originally attributed yoga’s mood-altering effects to endorphins (causing the so-called “runner’s high”), some of the few studies that have been conducted on this topic now point to the ECS.
The evidence for this goes all the way back to a study from 2003 in the journal NeuroReport, which found that subjects who ran on a treadmill or cycled on a stationary bike for 45 minutes at 70 to 80 percent of maximum heart rate significantly increased their blood levels of a type of endocannabinoid called AEA, also known as “the bliss molecule.”
Other research supports the hypothesis that the ECS is responsible for the mood boost created by healing practices like meditation (a component of yoga), massage, and osteopathy (a type of alternative medicine that involves manipulating muscles and joints). A study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association showed that healthy participants who received osteopathic manipulation experienced feelings most commonly associated with THC — the compound in cannabis responsible for the "high," or feeling of euphoria. Levels of AEA (the bliss molecule) appeared to increase as well.
Another study, this one published in Medicine Science Monitor, involved women who reported experiencing feelings of emotional distress. After participating in twice-weekly hatha yoga sessions for three months, the subjects’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased significantly. The ECS may have something to do with that; as Russo explains, the ECS kicks in before the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis begins producing cortisol in response to a real or perceived threat.
Enhancing the Path to Enlightenment
There are many choices for yoga beginners and enthusiasts, ranging from gentle to strenuous, cold to hot. But proving that everything old is new again, cannabis yoga has been gaining fans, building upon the original tenets of the Yoga Sutras as well as the Shiva cults that used ganja (marijuana, or bhang) to enhance deity worship.
The San Francisco–based hatha yoga instructor Dee Dussault, author of Ganja Yoga, says she pioneered the movement 10 years ago after experiencing a serious overuse injury and finding that small amounts of medicinal cannabis incorporated into her practice appeared to counteract some of the inflammation and pain and enhanced her ability to go deeper into meditative aspects. Today, she offers regular studio classes that permit students to bring CBD or THC products for personal or shared use. (Importantly, cannabis is approved for both medicinal and recreational use in California.)
Russo says that while some practitioners believe that the use of cannabis in any form during yoga is inadvisable, many people find its muscle-relaxant effects improve pliability, making it easier to assume otherwise challenging poses. Dessault says that her Ganja Yoga classes are slow-paced and especially beneficial for older people with pain. She has certified and trained roughly 25 Ganja Yoga instructors across the country and offers online classes as well.
There is a lot we don’t know about the relationship between yoga and the ECS, but the consensus is clear: Yoga can boost feelings of well-being and provide a variety of health benefits, including better sleep, less pain, and improved heart health. It's hoped that researchers will one day have more answers about the ECS’s role in the bliss response.