Researchers define the human endocannabinoid system (ECS) as a complex cell-signaling system that plays an important role in the development of the central nervous system (CNS), synaptic plasticity — a characteristic of neurons in the brain — and the body’s response to internal and external insults or stressors.
The ECS, whose components are widely distributed throughout the body, consists of cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids and the enzymes responsible for producing endocannabinoids. Besides regulating nerve function, this system is actively involved in many bodily processes, such as appetite regulation, digestion, immune responses (including inflammation), learning and memory, motor control, muscle formation, bone remodeling, sleep and metabolism.
In a recent study, Bruce Watkins, a researcher at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), discusses the potentially huge role the ECS plays in healthy aging. Watkins believes it may have something to do with the ECS’s involvement in systemic energy metabolism, inflammation, pain and brain biology. He also proposes that a healthy diet and regular exercise benefit health in many ways due to their influence on the ECS. He explains all of these in detail in an article published in the journal Nutrition Research.
The endocannabinoid system, health and aging
According to Watkins, diet is a major factor that influences health and aging. Inflammation, which is regulated by the ECS through endocannabinoids, is triggered not just by infections or injury, but also by oxidative stress. This event has been linked by numerous studies to premature aging.
Oxidative stress is caused by an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants are not just produced endogenously, but they can also be obtained from external sources, particularly from plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables. Watkins and many other researchers suggest that eating a healthy, antioxidant-rich diet prevents oxidative stress from harming cells and causing functional losses associated with aging. (Related: Nutrition is CRUCIAL to healthy aging.)
In a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, a team of American researchers presented evidence of a healthy diet’s anti-aging benefits by examining the effects of four antioxidant and anti-inflammatory diets on telomere length. Telomeres refer to the repetitive sequences found at the end of human chromosomes that protect them from damage. Researchers have long discovered that the shortening of telomeres is responsible for the aging-related degeneration of cells.
The researchers found that people who eat antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory diets that emphasize plant-based foods and limit consumption of meat and sugary foods have longer telomeres than people who don’t. The researchers believe that this can be explained by the fact that healthy diets create a biochemical environment that’s favorable to telomeres. Since longer telomere length is also linked to a reduced risk of major chronic disease, eating antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory diets may be the key to good health and healthy aging.
Watkin’s definition of healthy aging includes freedom from disease, the ability to engage in physical activity and the maintenance of cognitive skills. All of these require the involvement of the ECS. According to Watkins, one of the reasons exercise is linked to good overall health and well-being is because it induces endocannabinoid production in the brain. By activating the ECS, exercise reduces pain sensations and alters emotional and cognitive processes in a positive way.
The muscles, skin, lungs and endothelial cells — the cells that line blood vessels — are home to cannabinoid receptors, so it’s not impossible for the ECS to mediate physiological responses to exercise. According to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, moderate-intensity exercise dramatically increases blood plasma levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide. Anandamide binds to cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptors and is said to suppress pain initiation, induce calming effects, reduce stress and anxiety, and elevate mood. All of these contribute to a heightened sense of well-being often felt after a good exercise.
While there is much to learn about the functions of the ECS, Watkins is hopeful that future studies will uncover key relationships that will improve the current understanding of the ECS and its influence on human health.