As hemp products continue to flood the market, the truly skeptic consumer continues to ask whether or not it even works to cure the aches, pains, and anxieties their friends are taking them for. Indeed, there’s a clear scientific reason for this plant’s incredible popularity, and it’s not surprising that modern consumers are just learning about it now.
While herbalists have known of the powers of the hemp plant all the way back to ancient China over 5,000 thousand years ago, Western science is quite new to the party. This is partly because of prejudices against the forms of the cannabis plant with psychoactive effects (not hemp), but also because the system in the body with which hemp interacts is so subtle at doing its important work, it wasn’t even discovered by modern medicine until about twenty years ago.
See, the human body is a self-regulating system. Too hot? Your body produces sweat to cool you down. Spiking blood sugar after a meal? Your body secretes insulin to lower it. Becoming dehydrated? Your body sends your brain thirst signals so you drink water as soon as possible. Like a gymnast on a balance beam, our bodies are constantly fluctuating to keep balanced and healthy–a process called homeostasis. But this is pretty behind-the-scenes work your body is doing, we didn’t always understand that there was a single system responsible for maintaining this homeostasis, or balance.
One way our bodies maintain homeostasis is through the Endocannabinoid System (ECS), not discovered until the early 1990s when scientists concluded that all humans have this system: a crucial network of cell receptors that acts like an air-traffic control center for the body, providing homeostasis. The endocannabinoid system’s major homeostatic roles are known to be to “relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect.” The two main types of ECS cannabinoid receptors in our bodies are the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Although they are found throughout the body, CB1 receptors are mostly concentrated around the nervous system and CB2 within the immune system.
So, the receptors are the first part. Then, our body also produces natural chemical messengers that interact within the ECS called endocannabinoids, or endogenous cannabinoids. The phytocannabinoids (plant-based cannabinoids) that are so prevalent in the hemp plant mimic those produced in your body. Hemp extract, or cannabidiol, is one of approximately 100 active phytocannabinoids identified in hemp. All of these cannabinoids (internal or from plants) interact with the receptors of the ECS the same way to regulate many physiological systems in the human brain and body and help achieve homeostasis—the body’s natural state of balance.
The whole mechanism of the interaction of phytocannabinoids with the body’s ECS receptors can be compared to a “lock and key model.” ECS receptors are the locks whereas endocannabinoids are the keys. It takes the key (the endocannabinoids) to fit into the lock (the cannabinoid receptors) in order to trigger the mechanisms that eventually result in the physiological bodily responses.
When the lock is opened, a sort of magic happens: the ECS uses hormones and neural impulses to cause certain much-needed effects in the body. This can be pain alleviation, the appearance of hunger, or something else. Think of the ECS as a gateway to all the individual functions an organism can perform around those many relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect functions.
So, like your endogenous cannabinoids, hemp extract compounds act as keys, some might even call them “pick-locks” because they are not the usual, or intended key made by your body, but they mimic that function all the same. Structurally similar to the endogenous endocannabinoids, they perfectly fit into the receptors and stimulate them, thus mediating the same actions as the endocannabinoids. Pretty neat, huh?