An Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System                                 

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by Alicia Salazar

The endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is a major regulatory system in the body, was discovered between 1988 and 1990. This system regulates the functioning of many processes in the human body: protection and adaptation of the brainembryonic developmentimmunity, pain, carcinogenesis (cancer formation), sleepmemory, feeding and metabolism.

This system can be influenced by both our genetics and our lifestyle choices, including the foods we eat and behaviors or practices we engage in. While genetics plays a role in how an individual’s ECS functions, we also have some control over this system in the same way we can turn the heat up or down with the thermostat in our house.

One way we can “turn up the heat” or put this system into an imbalanced state is by eating inflammatory foods, such as unhealthy fats and refined sugars. It’s like having the heat in your house on all summer long. By eating healthy fats, such as hemp seeds and hemp oil, grass-fed products, or even fish oil, we fuel this system, promoting it to properly modulate processes in the body by regulating inflammation.

The ECS is a system of receptors (CB1 and CB2), lipids (fats) and enzymes. The receptors, found throughout the brain and body, act like baseball players in the field with their gloves open waiting for the balls to come to them. Lipids are the balls—some come from our own body (endocannabinoids) and some come from what we consume (including phytocannabinoids from plants). Imagine its batting practice with four catchers in the field. Not every ball will make it into a glove. Let’s imagine half of those balls (or fats) are “healthy” and half are “unhealthy.” We have a 50-50 chance of catching a good one. Before it gets caught, an enzyme works to break down the lipid to fit into the receptor, but, unfortunately, the healthy and unhealthy lipids compete for the same enzyme. If we are eating a standard American diet, that ratio gets skewed. We have a 20:1 ratio, more or less, of unhealthy to healthy fats. More unhealthy fats will reach receptors, get the enzyme and crowd out the healthy ones.

ECS Deficiency

Dr. Ethan Russo introduced the concept of endocannabinoid deficiency as the root cause of many chronic illnesses. The concept that the body can heal itself is not something new to us; though for many, this concept appears far-fetched. The ECS supports the functioning of the immune system, but when the ECS is not in balance, it is unable to positively influence the immune system (and other systems). Three common diseases that Russo attributes to ECS deficiency are migraines, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome. This deficiency can result from low levels of receptors or endocannabinoids, or a defect in signaling.

Understanding Hemp: Plant, Seed, Oil

Hemp has forever been used as an agricultural crop and medicinal plant. In fact, its uses have been documented in ancient Chinese and Egyptian civilizations. As a result of the psychoactive properties of one component known as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), hemp (cannabis) has been stigmatized and considered an illicit drug. THC is one of more than 100 compounds in this plant. In recent years, research has been conducted to discover what the other components are and what beneficial effects they have. Among these, CBD (cannabidiol) has received a lot of attention. CBD is a cannabinoid that has no psychoactive effects. In addition, there are many terpenes, or essential oils of the plant, that are known to have beneficial effects.

From this plant, we can consume hemp seeds and oil. Seeds and protein powder made from ground seeds contain less than 0.3 percent THC. These seeds are nutritional powerhouses, high in protein, fiber, minerals and the optimal ratio (1:2) of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Hemp oil should be consumed as an organic, full-spectrum oil with naturally occurring cannabinoids (including CBD) and terpenes, all of which work synergistically together to be more effective than any compound in isolation. Extraction methods do matter and a carbon dioxide cold extraction method without the use of harsh solvents is best. Also, make sure you can see lab results of the products you intend to consume. As a final note, be aware that there are trace amounts of THC in hemp oil, so if your job requires drug testing, be sure to discuss this with your practitioner. There are other options for you, as there are various ways to target the ECS system for wellness.

Alicia Salazar, of Stay Balanced, is a health coach. For more information, email or visit

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