A Tall, Icy, Glass of Poolside Science: The Role of the Endocannabinoid System in Regulating Body Temperature

Cannabis—as it turns out—can help keep bodies cool, thanks to the endocannabinoid system (ECS), our body’s master regulator. Could this be the key to summer stasis?

The ECS is found in all animals with a spine: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even sea squirts—animals that evolved more than 500 million years ago. In humans, its main role is to maintain homeostasis, or biological harmony in response to changes in the environment, according to UCLA Health. Temperature regulation plays a major role in bodily harmony. 

 

What Is the ECS? 

The ECS is a “central regulatory system that affects a wide range of biological processes,” explained Dr. Pepper Hernandez, Naturopathic Holistic Healer and Cannabis Therapy Consultant and director of Natural Medicine on the Plaza in Arcata, CA. The system is one of the most important, widespread receptor systems involved in maintaining human health and stability, she said. 

The ECS consists of a group of molecules known as cannabinoids, as well as the cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) to which they bind to, or activate, explained Hernandez. “So, basically, our bodies have a network of lock-and-key chemical receptors that respond to the signals of cannabinoids.”

Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds found in plants such as liverwort, echinacea, black pepper and—most famously—cannabis. Our bodies also produce their own cannabinoids, known as endogenous or endo-cannabinoids. One of these is anandamide, aka “the bliss molecule.” 

Endocannabinoids (eCBs) and their receptors are found throughout the entire body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands and immune system. 

“In each tissue, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the goal is always the same: the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment,” said Hernandez. 

In layman’s terms, the ECS is the body’s homeostatic regulator, explained Michelle Newhart, PhD, and co-author (with William Dolphin) of The Medicalization of Marijuana: Legacy, Stigma and the Patient Experience.

Newhart references Vincenzo DiMarzo, who summarized the function of the ECS as such: it helps people to “Eat, sleep, relax, protect and forget.”  

“The ECS is the master controller for all … bodily systems, including the processes associated with DiMarzo’s above list: metabolism, neuroprotection, etc.” As a modulator, Newhart noted, “The ECS is a ‘dimmer switch’ more than an ‘on/off switch,’” for these functions.

 

A Brief History of the ECS

Humans have used cannabis for millennia, but its mechanism of action remained a mystery until the discovery of cannabinoids and CB1 receptors.

In his book The Science of Marijuana, Leslie Iverson describes the history of the attempts to identify the primary chemical compounds in cannabis, which first began at the end of the 19th century. Chemists from the U.S. and the U.K. tried to identify the primary compounds in cannabis to little avail until the 1960s. In 1963, Rapheal Mechoulam and Yechiel Gaoni mapped cannabinol (CBD) and in 1964, they mapped and identified delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). 

“Before that, it had not even been certain if there was just one primary component that created it or if it was an effect that was created by multiple compounds,” said Newhart. “In fact, CBD ended up with its name because it had early on been suspected of being the primary cannabinoid.”

As far as the ECS, Newhart explained, it was not until the mid-1980s that it was identified by scientists at Allyn Howlett’s Laboratory at St. Louis University. Soon afterward, anandamide and CB2 receptors were discovered. Since then, scientists have discovered that our bodies are teeming with cannabinoid receptors, which operate on demand in response to bodily need.  

 

The Goldilocks Zone of Body Temperature

Our bodies require precise temperature regulation to function properly. Just a few degrees of fluctuation can result in disease and discomfort. If our bodies are too hot, we risk hyperthermia; too cold, and the body is in danger of hypothermia—both can be deadly. 

Human bodies try to maintain a temperature of 98.6 F within a pretty narrow margin of one or two degrees, explained Newhart. “This is the temperature condition that maximizes human metabolic rates.” 

Metabolism involves the chemical reactions needed to sustain life, like the breakdown of food for energy. Enzymes are needed to catalyze those reactions.

“When temperature goes up, enzymes are “denatured,” and their action drops quickly,” she said. In other words, they can’t do their jobs.

Mammals also need to maintain body temperature in order to protect against infection and fungus, reported gastroenterologist and internist David Keisler in an Aiken Standard article, Body Temperature Is Important to Functions.

“Many reptiles are susceptible to thousands of fungal species, but humans are invaded by only a few hundred species of fungi,” Keisler added, “There are fungal-fighting benefits in keeping the temperature between 80 degrees and 104 degrees F. The number of fungal species that can invade declines by 1.6 percent for every 1.8 degree F rise in body temperature.”

 

How ECS Regulates Body Temperature

A small region of the brain, known as the hypothalamus, is responsible for helping to regulate temperature among other important bodily functions. 

The hypothalamus acts as “the main control center for the autonomic nervous system by regulating sleep cycles, body temperature, appetite, etc., and that acts as an endocrine gland by producing hormones…” according to the dictionary definition.  

The hypothalamus works as the body’s thermostat, said Newhart, but it includes not just the cooling or heating aspects of a house thermostat but also the levels of salt and other chemicals. “[It’s] maybe more similar to a “smart” house thermostat that has heating and air conditioning and also controls air humidity and light levels in response to conditions,” she said. 

Both endogenous cannabinoids, and CB1 receptors have been found in the hypothalamus, explained Hernandez. That means when conditions get too hot, or too cold, facets of our ECS are working to adjust our thermostats accordingly. Exogenous cannabinoids—those found in plants—can influence that, too. 

Research has shown that cannabinoids—including THC—can change body temperature in a dose-dependent manner. Generally speaking, cannabinoid administration decreases heat production. However, “High doses can cause hypothermia, while low doses can cause hyperthermia,” according to Dr. Hernandez. She believes effects can depend on “a matter of the terpene profile and the ratios found in any particular strain.”

Terpenes—plant compounds that give them their flavors and scents—are also known to interact with the ECS, and influence body temperature. For example, Hernandez said, “lavender, mint and cinnamon all contain the terpene linalool—though lavender and mint are cooling herbs, and cinnamon is a warming herb. The terpene caryophyllene is known for its heat such as in black pepper, basil and rosemary,” she added, “so, it’s just a matter of time to find the cannabis fingerprint to help with every disease and discomfort.”

While more research is needed, the evidence shows that the ECS plays an important role in keeping our core body temperatures at healthy levels. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean a bong rip will keep you safe from the summer heat, or from getting hypothermia in frigid temperatures, but the evidence shows that cannabis is one tool the body uses to keep us comfortable during all seasons. In that case, it’s a good idea to keep your favorite infused product nearby, rain or shine!

Emerald contributor since February 2016

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