The Body’s Endocannabinoid System

The Body’s Endocannabinoid System

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As a teenager, Andrew Kerklaan had to see a surgeon. He’d been having numbness and back pain, so he went to the doctor’s office, waited three hours, and was told that nope, sorry, he did not have a back problem and unfortunately the surgeon was really busy and there would be no time for questions. Then he went to a chiropractor. Kerklaan in fact had a stress fracture (something he actually attributes to the paper route he had as a kid). As unpleasant a medical journey as it was, it also brought a pretty big silver lining: Kerklaan became a chiropractor in London and later in his hometown of Montreal, and for the past twenty years he’s been helping people in pain.

“Like many people who decide to be in the healthcare field, I wanted to help people who had the same experience I had,” he says.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago that he started studying the body’s endocannabinoid system, which he talked about at In goop Health Vancouver. The complex system, Kerklaan says, is in our gut, nervous system, and throughout our body. And he wanted to know why. And what role might the endocannabinoid system play in our overall well-being? What he found out intrigued us.

As did Kerklaan’s latest venture: his own line of CBD topicals called Dr. Kerklaan Therapeutics. You might be wondering how a chiropractor gets into the CBD business—and we were curious, too.

(Before we get into it, as always, you should check with your doctor on what’s best for you.)

A Q&A with Andrew Kerklaan, DC

What is the endocannabinoid system?

Your endocannabinoid system is part of your body’s nervous system. The complex part is that you can’t picture it as a physical thing, like our circulation system. The endocannabinoid system is more of a communication network with receptors—like CB1 and CB2 receptors—and molecules that our bodies naturally generate to bind to those receptors. You create these molecules, called endocannabinoids, they bind to receptors, and they influence what the receptors are doing. They can help regulate important functions in your body and have wide-ranging health potential. Your body naturally produces endocannabinoids, which, as science has discovered, are near-identical molecules to what are found in the cannabis or hemp plant.

What were you seeing as a chiropractor that made you become interested in the endocannabinoid system?

Before becoming a chiropractor, I had studied engineering, which is very mechanical. When you look at the body, we’re really mechanical as well. It’s about how we move muscles, joints, and bones. That mechanical approach to health is also very important. If you look at a list of our most common complaints, you’ll see a lot of it is related to lifestyle, posture, and stress.

At the beginning of my career, I had a very narrow view of what my patients’ issues were and what they were complaining about. As I accumulated more experience—I’ve treated around 5,000 people over the years—I started seeing the bigger, broader picture. It became clear in the last five years that a majority of people I was seeing had their root issue in a stress response.

At the same time, many of my patients were coming in and asking questions about medical cannabis. Like most health professionals, I didn’t feel equipped to answer those questions, so I attended conferences and started studying it. In doing that, I had my eyes opened to the significance of the endocannabinoid system.

Why did you think there was an underlying stress factor for patients with physical symptoms?

Our bodies are programmed to respond to things really quickly but for short periods of time. It’s our fight-or-flight response. Today, we are doing things really slowly for longer periods of time. Our muscles have to act slowly, move less, and do so for a long period. When we’re doing something we’re not designed to do, we can run into trouble.

When I looked at it from that perspective, I understood that a patient’s physical symptom might not just be the result of them bending over to pick something up. There might be other things going on in their life. If I can help address those other factors, it becomes more of a holistic approach. You have to exercise, you have to eat well, and you have to sleep. You also have to find ways to de-stress, have fun, and create good stress in your life to balance out the bad stress.

Does stress get trapped in the body, like in a certain body part? Or is it more of an exacerbating factor?

It’s more like a trigger, and we end up with these automatic bodily responses. The trigger can become smaller and smaller, but the response becomes bigger and bigger. In other words, our stress response keeps going up and up and up to smaller and smaller things. That’s an adaptation in the body that’s going in the wrong direction—it’s not helpful.

A lot of stress responses are not helpful if you think about it. What does stress do? It increases your heart rate and your blood pressure, which is ultimately bad for you. So your body’s creating this automatic response that is not good for you if continuously triggered.

This means we need to find ways to turn off these preprogrammed responses to those reactions and find ways to release things. We all have muscles that respond in a preprogrammed way to certain things. We might sit a certain way. That can trigger a recurring stress response and could contribute to a physical complaint.

Is there a theory on what role the endocannabinoid system might play in this?

After having a massage or being adjusted by a chiropractor, a lot of people report a sense of well-being. Post-manipulation, like a chiropractic adjustment, there may be a spike in anandamide, which is a naturally occurring endocannabinoid molecule in your body. It binds to the same brain receptors as cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, like THC, which gives that psychoactive effect of feeling high. So your body may produce a similar molecule to THC as a result of physical manipulation. This struck me.

I’ve spent twenty years working as a chiropractor and have seen people report feeling great after an adjustment. The prevailing theory was that this was created by an endorphin release, similar to the high that runners report after exercise. It turns out it could be related to your endocannabinoid system.

I thought that understanding our endocannabinoid system was crucial to being able to provide better care for my patients. I wanted to explore this possibility and help people understand this system, as there’s still a lack of understanding, a lack of information, and probably a lack of trust when it comes to conversations around endocannabinoids as a result of the historical stigma of cannabis.

On CBD Topicals

How does a chiropractor make a right turn into developing skin creams that goop staffers now stash in their desk drawers, bags, glove compartments, and everywhere elses? (Life truth: You can never be too moisturized when you live in LA.) “If you aren’t comfortable with your skin, it can define who you are,” Kerklaan told us. “It can make you self-conscious about how you look. If it affects how you feel, you can tie that back to stress.” Kerklaan wanted his base formulation to be fragrance-free and hypoallergenic. “So if you have sensitive skin, you’re not applying something that’s potentially irritating. That was the first step. Then we add the cannabidiol.”

While there isn’t evidence that topical or oral CBD can directly affect the endocannabinoid system, preliminary research has indicated CBD is absorbed transdermally and may offer beneficial effects. More research is needed.

In the meantime, a lot of CBD-minded people have questions about the quality of the products they’re using. Kerklaan’s CBD is derived from certified USA-grown hemp. (CBD is the nonpsychoactive component of the cannabis plant.) And sourcing matters: “CBD literally comes from a weed, and this weed grows so fast, it sucks up many nutrients from the soil,” Kerklaan says. “If you plant your weed in a field or somewhere that has a big concentration of pesticides and heavy metals in it, it could also suck those up. As you refine your CBD product, you go from a lot of plant material that’s less concentrated down to something more concentrated, so you can potentially end up with more heavy metals and pesticides.” In other words: Do your homework. Check that a brand tests for these things.

Looking ahead, the new farm bill is expected to shake up the CBD landscape. And with new regulations, says Kerklaan, there’ll be more research possibilities. And, we hope, more of the same products we love.

Andrew Kerklaan has more than two decades of experience as a doctor of chiropractic and has practiced in both London and his hometown of Montreal, where he is now based. He is also the founder and CEO of Dr. Kerklaan Therapeutics, a line of CBD topicals.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.