The endocannabinoid system (ECS) was only 'discovered' in the 1990s. Since then, many new ligands have been identified, as well as many new intracellular targets--ranging from the PPARs, to mitochondria, to lipid rafts. It was thought that blocking the CB-1 receptor might reverse obesity and the metabolic syndrome. This was based on the idea that the ECS was dysfunctional in these conditions. This has met with limited success. The reason may be that the ECS is a homeostatic system, which integrates energy seeking and storage behaviour with resistance to oxidative stress. It could be viewed as having thrifty actions. Thriftiness is an innate property of life, which is programmed to a set point by both environment and genetics, resulting in an epigenotype perfectly adapted to its environment. This thrifty set point can be modulated by hormetic stimuli, such as exercise, cold and plant micronutrients. We have proposed that the physiological and protective insulin resistance that underlies thriftiness encapsulates something called 'redox thriftiness', whereby insulin resistance is determined by the ability to resist oxidative stress. Modern man has removed most hormetic stimuli and replaced them with a calorific sedentary lifestyle, leading to increased risk of metabolic inflexibility. We suggest that there is a tipping point where lipotoxicity in adipose and hepatic cells induces mild inflammation, which switches thrifty insulin resistance to inflammation-driven insulin resistance. To understand this, we propose that the metabolic syndrome could be seen from the viewpoint of the ECS, the mitochondrion and the FOXO group of transcription factors. FOXO has many thrifty actions, including increasing insulin resistance and appetite, suppressing oxidative stress and shifting the organism towards using fatty acids. In concert with factors such as PGC-1, they also modify mitochondrial function and biogenesis. Hence, the ECS and FOXO may interact at many points; one of which may be via intracellular redox signalling. As cannabinoids have been shown to modulate reactive oxygen species production, it is possible that they can upregulate anti-oxidant defences. This suggests they may have an 'endohormetic' signalling function. The tipping point into the metabolic syndrome may be the result of a chronic lack of hormetic stimuli (in particular, physical activity), and thus, stimulus for PGC-1, with a resultant reduction in mitochondrial function and a reduced lipid capacitance. This, in the context of a positive calorie environment, will result in increased visceral adipose tissue volume, abnormal ectopic fat content and systemic inflammation. This would worsen the inflammatory-driven pathological insulin resistance and inability to deal with lipids. The resultant oxidative stress may therefore drive a compensatory anti-oxidative response epitomised by the ECS and FOXO. Thus, although blocking the ECS (e.g. via rimonabant) may induce temporary weight loss, it may compromise long-term stress resistance. Clues about how to modulate the system more safely are emerging from observations that some polyphenols, such as resveratrol and possibly, some phytocannabinoids, can modulate mitochondrial function and might improve resistance to a modern lifestyle.
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