The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is an important physiological system involved in regulating and balancing numerous functions and processes in the human body, including brain plasticity, learning and memory, stress and emotions, immune response, inflammation, appetite and food intake, bone and muscle health, digestion, metabolism, and energy balance (Figure 1).1 An imbalanced, prolonged alteration in the ECS—such as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency, which occurs when there are changes in function or density of cannabinoid receptors and/or endogenous cannabinoids levels—may negatively impact many aspects of health.2,3 Therefore, supporting and nourishing the function of the ECS is essential for maintaining the health of the mind and body.
Figure 1: The ECS and its role in regulating and balancing many physiological processes
- The ECS plays a critical role in regulating and balancing a range of physiological functions in the body to help maintain homeostasis.1
- Suboptimal function of the ECS (e.g., clinical endocannabinoid deficiency [CED]) is linked to many pathophysiological states, adversely impacting overall health.2,3
- Lifestyle approaches, such as stress management and targeted nutritional interventions, may help support ECS functions, which mediate homeostasis in multiple organ systems involved in various aspects of physical, psychological, and emotional health.4-11
- Utilization of plant-derived cannabinoids and terpenoids is a rapidly expanding research area, and emerging data suggest their potential in supporting the function of the ECS.12-16
Lifestyle approaches and ECS support
Various pathological states such as migraine, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are associated with clinical endocannabinoid deficiency.3 On the other hand, an overactive ECS is associated with conditions like obesity and diabetes.3 Certain lifestyle approaches may help support ECS functions, which mediate homeostasis in multiple organ systems involved in various aspects of physical, psychological, and emotional health.
- Stress management: Chronic stress negatively impacts the ECS by altering levels of AEA and 2-AG and CB1 receptor signaling.3 Osteopathic manipulative treatment, massage, meditation, yoga, and breathing techniques may be helpful in attenuating the effects of stress on endocannabinoid signaling and supporting ECS function.4,5
- Diet and exercise: A healthy diet along with moderate intensity aerobic exercise has been shown to improve endocannabinoid signaling.22 In human and animal research, obesity has been shown to overstimulate the ECS by increasing levels of endocannabinoids and CB1 receptor expression. It has been suggested that weight loss via caloric restriction or fasting may beneficially modulate the ECS.3
- Specific dietary changes: Animal studies have shown that adequate intakes of dietary omega-3 fatty acids are important for functional endocannabinoid signaling.9,10 Preliminary evidence from animal studies shows that probiotics and prebiotics may restore proper expression of CB receptors.11 In addition, endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) used in pesticides and food packaging can alter normal ECS function. Therefore, practices aimed at reducing exposure to EDCs (e.g., eating more organic foods and less processed foods) may also promote endocannabinoid homeostasis.3
- Plant bioactives: Preliminary studies have shown that plant-derived compounds such as phytocannabinoids and terpenoids modulate the ECS and affect a variety of physiological processes influenced by the ECS. For example:
- A human clinical study showed that cannabidiol (CBD) enhanced endocannabinoid signaling by suppressing FAAH activity, thereby increasing concentrations of the anti-inflammatory endocannabinoid AEA.23
- In animal models another phytocannabinoid, cannabigerol (CBG), regulated endocannabinoid signaling and demonstrated antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, leading to neuroprotection.24,25
- β-caryophyllene, one of the known terpenes found in many plants and spices such as pepper and cloves, exerts anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects through activation of the CB2 receptor.26
Figure 2: Potential clinical interventions for supporting ECS function