Thought leadership: Why medical schools should be paying more attention to hemp and the endocannabinoid system

Doctors have long known about the human body’s 11 organ systems that work in concert with one another to regulate our health: integumentary, muscular, skeletal, nervous, circulatory, lymphatic, respiratory, endocrine, urinary/excretory, reproductive, and digestive.


But there is a very important system missing from that list, one that not many doctors or researchers even know about: the endocannabinoid system. Discovered in 1990, the endocannabinoid system (ECS, for short) is an important physiological system that works to create homeostasis, or balance, in the body.

The discovery of the ECS led to the naming of cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body: the CB1 receptor, found mostly in the nervous system and organs, and the CB2 receptor, which interacts with the nervous system. The receptors are meant to interact with both phytocannabinoids, such as those found in the hemp plant and our own endogenous cannabinoids. Known as endocannabinoids, the naturally occurring cannabinoids in the human body stimulate these receptors to keep our physiological functions stable.


Our body’s endocannabinoids act as chemical messengers that keep everything running smoothly. Sleep, appetite, mood, pain, memory, pleasure, immunity, motor control, and temperature regulation are all impacted by the health of the ECS.


Better education around the endocannabinoid system could be a helpful tool for doctors. When the ECS is not working optimally, research has shown that some conditions, like migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and other treatment-resistant conditions may be due to clinical endocannabinoid deficiency.


This theory, initially put forth by renowned cannabinoid researcher Dr. Ethan Russo, suggests that if the body does not produce enough endocannabinoids for the ECS to function properly, other organ systems may fall out of balance, making the body vulnerable to disease. Thoughtful consumption of phytocannabinoids derived from a variety of plants, including not just hemp, but also echinacea and cacao, may help restore balance to the ECS, and help the body make its own endocannabinoids.

However, it’s so far uncommon for your average doctor to know much about hemp’s role in the ECS, especially since it’s not often part of the medical school curriculum. In 2013, a survey commissioned by Dr. David B. Allen found that only 13 percent of medical schools in the U.S. taught anything about the ECS at all.


Hopefully, as awareness increases around endo- and phytocannabinoids and scientists continue to study their impact on human health, more doctors and medical students will learn about the ECS, hemp, and its benefits toward good health.

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