Homeostasis has become a “buzzword” within the cannabis community these days. It seems everyone is throwing the term around and “touting” how cannabis products, particularly those featuring Cannabidiol (CBD), promote or enhance homeostasis. But what does that mean? And how does it work?
Homeostasis: The Definition
In biology, Homeostasis can be defined as the steady, internal physical and chemical systems used by all living systems to create balance. These “systems” continually strive for a balanced, stable environment in order for optimal cellular performance, which in turn facilitates an overall state of wellbeing within the greater organism itself.
The term itself comes from the Greek language, with “home” meaning similar or familiar and “stasis” meaning stable, so the literal translation is “stable home” Humans, as one of the most complex organisms have developed complex biological systems designed to achieve and maintain Homeostasis (or balance) within the system.
Homeostasis: A real world example.
One very simple, and illustrative example of homeostasis is temperature regulation. The human organism performs optimally with an internal temperature of approximately 98.6 degrees F (37 degrees C) and the farther away from this internal “balanced” temperature the organism becomes, the more peril the organism finds itself in. Too far above, or below can ultimately cause irreversible harm and even death.
Of course, the external environmental conditions the human organism operates on a day to day basis are rarely that exact temperature, so a biological system evolved within the nervous system to regulate and maintain the internal temperature to remain in the optimal range. If the organism’s temperature begins to drop, this “system” sounds an alarm that will cause the organism to respond. In this case, special “signaling” molecules will signal the cardiovascular and muscular systems to “speed up”, which creates a physiological response of shivering, which creates heat by the expenditure of energy. Conversely, increases in internal temperature cause an opposite reaction within the signaling “molecules'' that will result in the release of moisture (sweating) at the skin surface to produce a “cooling effect”. None of this is a conscious response… it just happens internally when specific conditions dictate.
This biological signaling occurs across an enormous spectrum of conditions from temperature regulation, immune response, mood, sleep, appetite just to name a few.
How molecular signaling works
As we have discussed in great detail in this article, there are 3 basic parts to molecular “signaling”.
- Neurotransmitters: On demand molecules produced within an organism that are designed to up-regulate (or even down-regulate) a specific cellular response. I like to think of it as the “gas pedal” in a car. Tap it, and a very specific response will occur.
- Enzymes: These lipid-based amino acids are produced in order to breakdown the neurotransmitters once the specific cellular response has occurred. These would be the brakes on the car so to speak.
- Receptor Sites: These are special “docking” platforms located on specific cells that will sit idle until a specific neurotransmitter floats by that “has the key” to dock onto the cell to create response. Later, the enzymes will be released to degrade the neurotransmitters to the point where they “undock” from the receptor site and bring the cell back to its neutral state.
This “turning on” and “turning off” of these specific cellular responses are what allows the cells to “respond” to certain conditions and maintain homeostasis. All the system working together provide balance and optimal performance within a broad range of environments or external factors.
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) and Homeostasis
We’ve written extensively about the ECS here in the past, but a brief recap is in order.
The ECS is a molecular signaling system that helps promote homeostasis for an extensive array of functions. It has been linked to: appetite and digestion, metabolism, chronic pain, inflammation and other immune system responses, mood, learning and memory, motor control, sleep, cardiovascular system function, muscle formation, bone remodeling and growth, liver function, reproductive system function, stress, and nerve function.
The ECS has (at least) two on-demand neurotransmitters in Anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). It also has fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which is an enzyme that down-regulates Anandamide activity and returns the cell back to homeostasis. So far, there have been 2 discovered ECS receptor sites known as CB1 and CB2, with CB1 sites primarily populating cells within the brain and nervous system and CB1 primarily seen in cells with the immune system. The interaction of these three elements together has a profound effect across the many functions governed by the ECS described above.
Endocannabinoid System (ECS) deficiency.
Molecular signaling is an evolutionary tool that directly ties back to some of the most basic survival processes in humans and many other animals. The so-called “fight or flight” response to dangerous conditions is a perfect illustration. Back in the day, when faced with danger (such as a “Saber-tooth Tiger” in the bushes), the body automatically and immediately responded. The body, among other things, would flood with cortisol (a stress hormone), which in turn raises blood pressure, heart rate and heightened senses to either meet, or flee from the immediate threat. When the threat passes, other molecules (such as Anandamide) were released to decrease the cortisol in the system and bring the body back to it’s stable (non-stressed) position.
In a healthy, functioning ECS, the stress response is proportional. We experience the stressful event, overcome it and move on without causing any long-term deficit issues with our overall emotional wellbeing. However, if the stress becomes acute and chronic, the ECS can become deficient or damaged. This damage, over time, can leave one more susceptible to other stresses that can lead to chronic unpleasant issues with fear, stress and anxiety.
There are some well known homeopathic anecdotes to combat high levels of stress in the body, like exercising, getting outside, mental stimulation and improving sleep. Unsurprisingly, these activities have been linked to healthy levels of Anandamide and reduced levels of Cortisol in the body.
Where does Cannabis and Cannabidiol (CBD) fit in.
As has been extensively written about here, the cannabis sativa plant contains approximately 125 different cannabinoids, with delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) being the most well known. Cannabinoids, it has been shown, are uniquely designed to work within the ECS in the same way that endocannabinoids produced in the body (such as Anandamide) do.
THC, for example, docks directly to CB1 like receptors and creates the euphoric “high” associated with marijuana. It works kinda like Anandamide on steroids. However, THC is biphasic like alcohol, and the more you ingest the more likely you are to experience “too much of a good thing” and have unpleasant side effects associated with it.
CBD on the other hand, has not been shown to dock to either CB1 or CB2, which in part explains it’s non-intoxicating nature. However, CBD still plays a role andd has been shown to break down the enzyme FAAH. As explained earlier, FAAH is responsible for getting rid of the blissful molecule Anandamide. Less FAAH in the body means more Anandamide available in the body. Anandamide is associated with feelings of well-being.
CBD wellness proponents that suggest CBD for anxiety of chronic stress cite the increased levels of Anandamide promoted by CBD use as a target for future scientific study. After all, low levels of this crucial bliss molecule have direct associations with both long-term anxiety and stress. Studies also suggest that CBD is also anti-carbolic and antioxidant, which means it inhibits both the production and effect of carbolic substances like Cortisol.
Putting it all together
The body has a very sophisticated molecular-level system in place to both encourage and maintain a homeostatic (or balanced) system for optimal performance. However, in today’s crazy world of unique and varied stressors, it's easy for “the system” to get out of whack.
Granted, a lot more scientific study is needed, but it appears that natural supplements like CBD can interact within these “systems” and encourage homeostasis, particularly in systems that have been tilted a bit out of balance. It also goes to explain why CBD has become so popular in recent years used by some to help “stabilize the house” and encourage homeostasis.