The Endocannabinoid System: Number II The Hormones

August 08, 2006

The Endocannabinoid System:  Number II   The Hormones 

 Competency # 1  RISK                      ReferenceClin Cornerstone. 2006;8 Suppl 4:S24-35

Last week we learned that the Endocannabinoid System  (ECS)  controls your endocrine response to food, appetite in an integrated fashion.  In fact, it appears the fog of uncertainty is lifting and the ECS system is part of the controlling process that regulates all the components of the “Metabolic Syndrome”.  Right now we see those as separate components with elements like elevated sugar, elevated lipids, elevated blood pressure: all associated with “visceral fat”(AKA big tummies.)  If we can figure out and control the ECS, we may find that what used to take multiple medications for multiple diagnoses may need much less total medication and more focused medication.  Imagine taking one pill for high blood pressure, diabetes, lipids and that pill could help you lose weight.  That all makes sense when you realize that all those conditions do get better when you lose weight the old fashioned way: by burning it and achieving real weight loss. 

 Back to the hormones:  The ECS’s first hormone that was discovered was called anandamide.   A second one is called 2-arachidonoylglycerol.  Anandamide is a feed back inhibitor.  You make it when your brain puts out dopamine, GABA, glutamate, and serotonin.  It’s released from the nerve cell that has GABA and dopamine receptors and goes back to the originating neuron to signal it to stop releasing those messengers.  So, it is a modulating and self- regulating process.  Those receptors are called CB1 and CBs for cannabinoid 1 and 2. For those of you who are neurology buffs, those receptors are in the hippocampus, the basal ganglia, the cerebellum, brainstem, limbic system AND in FAT CELLS and in the GI tract and immune cells.   

 Interestingly, it’s in the most primitive parts of our brain, and in our digestive system and immune system.  (Remember the common soil idea: that our metabolic system is all tied up with our inflammation and immune response?) The combined effect of its feedback loop is that the ECS becomes a Stress Recovery System.  It becomes transiently activated to RELAX your response to pain and fear, to relax smooth muscle tone, to lower blood pressure.  It helps you to REST and feel slightly sedated.  To FORGET nasty memories and thereby PROTECT you from stress at the cellular and emotional level.    And all those make you feel good about EATING MORE.  

It becomes appetite inducing and reward-reinforcing. What happens when we get too much reward and get overweight with tummy fat?   In the brain our hypothalamus gets rewarded for eating more and more. And in our visceral fat, it increases insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, and triglycerides, and lowers our HDLs (good cholesterol).  We get in a cycle of eating as a way of reducing stress.  This isn’t rocket science.  It’s what happens when you are tired at 10 o’clock at night.  The fridge pops open, the ice cream levitates out into your hand and it feels so sooooo good. This all makes sense.  It describes the mess we are all in.  We stress eat.  We gain weight.  We eat more.   And ALL OF US are in this together as we get heavier, and our metabolic syndrome runs amuck.  For those of you who are slender and in good shape, this is the mortal enemy you have struggled against to stay skinny and have won.  For the rest of us, this explains why it is so easy to flounder. Help may be on the way.  Understanding is the first step. Next week:  the future.  What might be around the corner to help you with all this: ECS blocking agents.

This column is written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD,Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI. (262-784-5300)