Migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia—these painful “functional” health conditions have generally been treated in conventional medicine as separate disorders. But recent research reveals that these and a number of other chronic problems may have a single cause. Deficiencies in the body’s extensive endocannabinoid receptor system can cause the symptoms associated with these disorders—and clinical endocannabinoid deficiency, or CECD, can be treated by cannabis in any of its many forms.
For people suffering from migraine, IBS, fibromyalgia and autoimmune disorders like arthritis, cannabis compounds like cannabidiol (CBD), and even tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient responsible for the marijuana high, can provide safe and effective relief from pain and other symptoms. And that relief comes without the often-serious side effects of powerful prescription medications. But until relatively recently, the reason cannabis could be so effective in treating conditions like this wasn’t entirely clear.
RELATED: WHAT IS THE ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM?
In mainstream medicine, diseases and chronic conditions like migraines are typically viewed—and treated—largely in isolation, although it’s generally recognized that imbalances in the body’s various systems play a role in the development of these disorders.
But the systems that drive chronic pain conditions and other health problems are wider and more complex than previously thought. This suggests that rather than taking separate medications to treat individual conditions, patients might benefit more from medication that treats the root cause of surface symptoms.
For people with clinical endocannabinoid deficiency, that means cannabis compounds could remedy the deficiency and eliminate the symptoms of conditions that are traceable to a shortage of natural endocannabinoids. Here’s why.
The human body—and that of other mammals too—comes naturally equipped with an array of natural cannabinoid receptors. These cells respond to the presence of cannabinoid (or cannabinoid-like) molecules by producing neurotransmitters that perform an astonishing array of tasks aimed at keeping the body regulated and healthy.
The body produces its own endocannabinoids, but it also responds to those consumed from outside sources, such as smoking or eating cannabis. In fact, features of natural endocannabinoids are so close to those in marijuana’s psychoactive compound THC that they bind easily to the same receptors.
The endocannabinoid system is a relatively recent discovery. It wasn’t until 1990 that research revealed the presence of a cannabinoid receptor. And in the years following the cloning of that first receptor, CB1, the understanding of the scope and power of the endocannabinoid receptor system continues to expand.
Now, clinical studies show that the endocannabinoid system drives a wide range of physical and psychological processes, such as immune responses, mood and memory and the perception of pain. When this system is out of balance, and natural cannabinoids are in short supply, problems like chronic pain, anxiety and depression, or immune system issues can happen.
So far, two endocannabinoid receptors have been identified, and they occur throughout the body, which accounts for the effects they have on so many different processes. These receptors perform different functions, too; this explains how the body responds to the compounds THC and CBD in cannabis.
CB1 receptors are plentiful in many regions of the brain, including the cerebellum and hippocampus. There, they affect functions like memory, motor control and pain regulation. They’re also found in the spinal cord, as well as in connective tissues, some organs and the gastrointestinal tract.
Though both kinds of receptors can occur in the same areas, CB2 receptors are found primarily in white blood cells, the tonsils and the spleen—key elements of the immune system. That can explain why CBD in particular appears to have potent anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting effects.
One area that's very low in either kind of cannabinoid receptors is the brainstem, home of the autonomous nervous system that regulates breathing, heart rate and other “automatic” functions. For that reason, the risk of sudden death from an overdose of cannabis is virtually nonexistent. In comparison, the brainstem is rich in opioid receptors, so that an overdose of heroin or a prescription opioid medication can easily depress respiration and heart rate to fatal levels.
Although the endocannabinoid system was discovered nearly 30 years ago, it wasn’t until 2004 that researchers proposed the concept of a clinical endocannabinoid deficiency that could be the underlying cause of many chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, migraine and irritable bowel and other digestive issues.
These conditions are often linked to stress, immune system problems and other psychological and environmental factors, but low levels of endocannabinoids could explain them all. Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency could also explain why many people say that using cannabis relieves their symptoms, even if they suffer from multiple conditions at once, such as migraine and digestive problems, or fibromyalgia and chronic headache.
Because the body does produce its own endocannabinoids, it’s possible to boost the endocannabinoid system by exercising, engaging in creative “flow” and having bodywork done like massage. Adding more foods like pepper, rosemary, oregano and sage to the diet can also support the system. But for chronic conditions related to pain and stress responses, medical cannabis may be the way to give a depleted system exactly what it needs to return to balance—and general good health.
Photo credit: Laura Makabresku