Like a tightrope walker, the human body seeks balance. Your body has developed a highly honed ability to achieve an internal state of equilibrium, referred to as homeostasis. This system of checks and balances to keep you functioning on an even keel is influenced by the endocannabinoid system. Both internal (endogenous) and external cannabinoids (those found in marijuana) affect the cannabinoid system, which means they have a role in this balancing act.
Deep within the brain just above the brain stem is a cluster of nerve cells called the hypothalamus. This structure is involved in the endocrine (hormone) system and helps regulate key processes such as:
- Body temperature
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Sleep cycles
All of these processes are essential to maintaining homeostasis, both of the body as a whole and of specific systems such as the circulatory or respiratory system. The hypothalamus acts as a central command post, recognizing changes in the environment and releasing hormones and neurotransmitters, chemicals that allow communication between the various cells and structures of the body, to counteract the change or initiate a reaction. Here's an example: Your body prefers an even 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the ideal temperature for organ and system functioning. When you exercise, your body temperature goes up. To combat the exercise-induced temperature spike, your hypothalamus stimulates the millions of eccrine or sweat glands in the skin. The resulting sweat helps cool the body, preventing your core temperature from getting too high. Other homeostatic responses to exercise include flushing, which is the result of dilated blood vessels that also help reduce body temperature, and increased breathing and heart rate to keep oxygen levels at optimum levels. All these responses are intended to return the body to balance.
Endocannabinoid System and Homeostasis
The endocannabinoid system consists of cannabinoid receptors located throughout the central and peripheral nervous system and immune system. These receptors bind to both endocannabinoids and external cannabinoids, such as Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
The hypothalamus contains cannabinoid receptors, and research shows that the endocannabinoids that bind to these receptors help regulate homeostasis. Disruptions in this process, through illness, injury or medication, can affect homeostasis.
Most homeostatic responses are nonconscious acts; you are not aware of them; they just occur. Think about your car's engine. When the engine is working, and you get to your destination without mishap, you probably don't think about the oil in the car. But without that oil, or if the oil is old and contaminated, the engine grinds, systems fail, and your trip is halted. Similarly, when the homeostatic process in your body is interrupted due to illness, medication or injury, balance is prevented.
There are a number of diseases and conditions caused by homeostasis imbalance, including:
- Diabetes and hypo- and hyperglycemia
- High blood pressure
- Thyroid disorders, such as goiter
- Endocrine disorders
In diabetes, for instance, the balance between blood glucose levels and insulin production is off. Medical intervention is needed in the form of insulin pills or injections to restore balance and prevent organ damage and death.
Age is another factor that affects homeostasis. Let's face it; things don't always work as well as we get older, including on the cellular level. According to Dr. Robert Melamede, retired chairman of the Biology Department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, "cannabinoid deficiency has been implicated in a number of age-related illnesses."
Some age-related illnesses are also homeostatic in origin, such as osteoporosis and arthritis. Other conditions may result in homeostatic symptoms because they disrupt the normal cannabinoid cycle. In patients with chronic pain, for example, heart rate, blood pressure and depression are elevated and sleep is disturbed. These symptoms are the result of overreaction of the cannabinoid system in response to the constant pain stimulus. The cycle of stimulation and cannabinoid trigger does not stop, and balance cannot be achieved.
Cannabis for Restoring Balance
Cannabinoids from cannabis have the ability to bind to cannabinoid receptors and restore balance. Let's look at the patients with chronic pain. THC is not only an analgesic, it also blocks the pain from stimulating the cannabinoid receptors that are triggering the increased heart rate, blood pressure, mood effects and sleep deprivation.
Cannabis has been shown to offer health benefits in treating a number of conditions associated with homeostatic imbalance, including:
- Appetite disorders
- Crohn's Disease
Researchers are also looking at the effects of cannabis on schizophrenia and obesity. Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder that may be due to an unbalanced dopamine cycle in the brain. Obesity is a metabolic disease in which food intake surpasses energy needs, and it has reached epidemic proportions, affecting more than one-third of all adults in the United States. Again, due to an absence of homeostasis.
Aristotle once said that "nature abhors a vacuum." Nature also abhors imbalance, and like the tightrope walker, we need to be able to restore balance for ultimate functioning and performance. Using cannabis may help us walk that health tightrope.