Hemp farmer pouring seeds into hand that contain cannabinoid

Endocannabinoid System 101: Is There a CBD Alternative?

It’s probably not a big surprise that CBD has grown in popularity over the years—these are, after all, stressful times, and this compound extracted from the cannabis plant has a well-known reputation for helping support sleep, relaxation, mood, appetite and even immune health. And nowadays, you can find this cannabinoid almost everywhere.

The reason why CBD seems to be touted for so many different benefits is because it influences an underlying system known as your endocannabinoid system (ECS). But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to activate this system. To get a better understanding of how the ECS works, what CBD is, as well as natural alternatives, we turned to Life Extension’s Director of Education, Michael A. Smith, MD, for insights.


Q. What is the endocannabinoid system?

woman relaxed and in balance

A. Your ECS is an essential physiological system in the body that’s responsible for maintaining many metabolic processes—from hormonal balance to inflammation; from stress control to sleep.

A good way to think of it is as a “parent” system to “children” systems. While all of the bodily systems—such as metabolic, cardiovascular, etc.—interact and talk with each other, the more we learn about the ECS, the more we realize that it’s a true foundation or parent system. As a critical, foundational system that drives optimal biological performance, your ECS has a strong influence on many important things, like stress, sleep and hormone balance.


Q. What happens when the endocannabinoid system is out of balance?

A. Because we’re still learning about the ECS, there’s debate about the symptoms of an imbalanced ECS system. But when I see people struggling with common conditions like stress, anxiety, depression or weight gain, and who don’t see the desired result of their treatment plan, that tells me there’s an underlying system that’s “out of whack.”

Take stress specifically. If your ECS is out of balance, you could be doing many things to manage cortisol levels in the body, but they may not work as well because the parent or underlying system is imbalanced. That’s an indication that perhaps step one should be to fix the endocannabinoid system, and step two, to worry about cortisol levels and the stress response.


Q. Why is this system called “endocannabinoid,” and what does that term have to do with “cannabinoids” or CBD?

cannabis plant seeds

When we say endocannabinoid, we’re referring to “human” cannabinoids—it’s what’s intrinsic to us. But let’s back up a bit and discuss cannabinoids. These molecules float around your system and bind to cannabinoid receptors. And what we know is that those cannabinoid receptors are in just about every living creature on the planet: from the plant kingdom to the animal kingdom.

When a cannabinoid from a plant, like CBD, enters your (human!) system, there’s a strong likelihood it’ll bind to your receptors and interact with your ECS system, producing, in some cases, a clinical effect. Some people use CBD for sleep support, digestion, pain management and stress relief.

Q. What does CBD do to the brain?

man with mental focus

Some evidence shows that CBD may bind to human receptors in the brain and may influence pain management, stress management, attention and focus. But this is an area where extensive research is needed, before we can conclude that it has clinical benefits.


Q. Many people associate CBD with getting “high.” Is CBD a drug?

A. Cannabidiol (CBD) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are both cannabinoid compounds found in cannabis—referred to as “hemp” or “marijuana,” depending on THC content.

When THC binds to human receptors, it also causes that euphoria or “high” effect, whereas CBD doesn’t.

The fact that there are over the counter CBD products is due to that reason: CBD doesn’t cause that “high.” If it does, it’s not to the level of THC.


Q. Is there an alternative to CBD or THC?

A. Absolutely, that’s our approach. It is possible to benefit your endocannabinoid system without using CBD or THC. Instead, we encourage boosting your endogenous cannabinoids at the cellular level because they will have a higher affinity to your receptors and may give you the best results.


Q. Why choose an alternative to CBD?

A. Our philosophy at Life Extension is that it’s better to boost your intrinsic systems’ health. You can do that through a healthy lifestyle and a variety of nutrients. For example, lots of people are into hemp, and it works—but wouldn’t it be better to try to boost your endocannabinoids because those will bind the best to your receptors? That may be the most effective way to experience the benefits of a balanced endocannabinoid system.

One of the nutrients we use to boost endocannabinoids, for example, is red clover extract. It works by preventing the breakdown of some endocannabinoids, so that they can circulate longer throughout the body.

And other CBD alternatives include rosemary, clove and black pepper. These nutrients have plant compounds with cannabinoid-like structures and can also bind to and activate your ECS. So, your body gets the same array of health benefits but without CBD.

About the Author: Jessica Monge has a bachelor's degree in biological sciences & neuroscience and a master's degree in comparative studies and related languages from Florida Atlantic University. She worked as a tutor, freelance writer and editor before joining Life Extension, where she is currently a Digital Content Writer.