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Understanding the Endocannabinoid System

Green Shoppers Written by Green Shoppers
Updated on October 26, 2018

Everybody knows that cannabis has some sort of effect on the human body. Marijuana is renowned for its mind-altering effects, known as a ‘high,’ but why does this occur? And of course, if the cannabis plant itself has effects on the body, then products derived from it must also have some effects too, including CBD hemp oils.

In this article, we will talk about the endocannabinoid system, it’s discovery, and what role it plays in our survival, so that hopefully you can better understand how it works.

What is homeostasis?

Before we go any further, it’s probably useful to know about homeostasis. This term refers to the concept of biological balance. Our bodies naturally maintain this state of homeostasis, meaning that all our systems are regulated to make sure all the conditions in the body are just perfect.

For example, temperature needs to stay within a specific, rather small, range in order for our bodies to work properly. Cell performance relies on these optimum conditions, which is why homeostasis is so important.

Think of it like Goldilocks and the three bears: the body is not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

What is the endocannabinoid system?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) has been described by Dustin Sulak, DO, as “perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”

It consists of endocannabinoids (yes, that’s right, the body produces its own cannabinoids!) and their receptors. Endocannabinoid receptors are found all over the human body, including in the brain, organs, tissues, glands, and immune cells. The ECS undertakes a variety of different tasks depending on where the specific receptors are located, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis.

We will look at some of examples of how this works below, but first…

How was the endocannabinoid system discovered?

In 1992, the first endocannabinoid was discovered, called anandamide. This huge scientific breakthrough was made by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, alongside William Devane and Dr. Lumir Hanus. The second, 2-arachidonoylglycerol (or 2-AG), was discovered by the same team in 1995.

With these discoveries, the scientists worked backwords to trace the metabolic pathways of THC. Thanks to this process, the research team found a molecular signalling system within us: the ECS.

The endocannabinoid system and its endocannabinoids were actually named due to their resemblance to the compounds found in the cannabis plant (phytocannabinoids) and because the plant helped lead to this discovery.

Of course, in scientific terms, this is quite a recent discovery, and therefore not all that much is known about the endocannabinoid system yet. Two endocannabinoids have been discovered, along with two receptors – called CB1 and CB2 – but there is still much to learn about this system.

What does the endocannabinoid system do?

We have already talked a little bit about the ECS’ role in homeostasis, but it might be helpful to include some examples.

Autophagy refers to a process in which cells self-digest and recycle. This is regulated by the endocannabinoid system, allowing healthy cells to stay alive and continue to reproduce. Furthermore, this process has a deadly effect on malignant cancer cells, causing them to digest themselves; essentially, the endocannabinoid system could help our bodies to stave off cancer by promoting homeostasis.

Furthermore, the endocannabinoid system allows communication between different body systems and body types. For example, when an injury occurs, endocannabinoids are present to decrease the release of activators and sensitizers from the injured tissue, calming immune cells in order to reduce the level of inflammation. This minimises the pain and damage caused by an injury, allowing the body to continue as normal.

As you can probably tell, the ECS is vital in our survival, because it regulates so many systems and processes.

The parts of the endocannabinoid system

There are three main components in the ECS:

  • Endocannabinoids
  • Cannabinoid receptors
  • Metabolic enzymes.

Endocannabinoids are compounds that the body produces naturally. They are molecules that are quite similar to plant cannabinoids such as CBD or THC, with the main difference being that endocannabinoids are produced within us. Anandamide and 2-AG are the major endocannabinoids, both made up of fat-like molecules. They are created pretty much on-demand, meaning they are made and used when the body requires them.

Cannabinoid receptors are types of receptors that exist on the surface of cells. They transmit information about the body’s state and changing conditions, so that anything wrong can be detected and made right. The principal cannabinoid receptors are CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors are abundant in the brain and nervous system, whereas CB2 receptors can be found more densely throughout the immune system and its associated structures.

Metabolic enzymes exist to break down endocannabinoids after use. These ensure that endocannabinoids don’t remain in the body for longer than necessary. FAAH is the enzyme that breaks down anandamide, whereas MAGL breaks down 2-AG.

Endocannabinoid regulation of brain cell firing

An example of the ECS at work is how it regulates the firing of neurons (brain cells). Neurons communicate by sending electrochemical signals. Each neuron must listen to other things in the body in order to know when it’s signal is required, as too many signals can cause an overload and lead to severe problems. Thankfully, we have the endocannabinoid system!

For instance, if a neuron becomes overactive and begins to send too many signals, another neuron that is listening will notify the ECS. Endocannabinoids will be produced by the overactive neuron where they can bind to its CB1 receptors, effectively blocking its signals for a while. This leads the body back toward homeostasis.

Endocannabinoid regulation of inflammation

Inflammation is a common topic when talking about the endocannabinoid system. It occurs as a natural protectant in response to physical damage, with the inflamed area being produced by fluid and immune cells moving to the area.

Although this is a good response, inflammation can get out of hand. Sometimes inflammation sticks around longer than necessary, which can cause harm and pain. In fact, there are even some conditions related to inflammation in which it occurs without being needed. Some scientists now think this may be due to an endocannabinoid deficiency.

When the ECS is up and running, endocannabinoids limit the immune system’s inflammatory signals. Basically, endocannabinoids are released alongside the inflammatory modules when injury is detected, and these limit the inflammation that occurs.

Why do plant cannabinoids have an effect on the body?

By now, you’re probably wondering why plant cannabinoids effect the body in the way they do, if you haven’t figured it out already. Well, endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids are so similar that both can interact with the cannabinoid receptors found throughout our bodies.

THC, for example, binds to CB1 receptors in the brain, which is why it produces an intoxicating effect. CBD, on the other hand, is thought to interact more with CB2 receptors elsewhere in the body.

This is why people take CBD as a food supplement – it is seen as a way of putting extra cannabinoids into this system. Does this work? Well, time will tell. Studies on the matter are few and far between right now, and scientists are still working hard to unlock all the hidden secrets on the endocannabinoid system. We will simply have to wait and see.

Final thoughts

The endocannabinoid system is an essential system in our bodies. It is so important because it regulates a huge number of bodily processes, maintaining homeostasis so that we can live a safe and healthy life.

This is a very complicated and comparatively little understood biological system. The ECS is still being intensely researched so that we can find out all there is to know about it and what role it could play in various ailments, but as of yet it is hard to tell.

That said, it is still worth knowing and understanding the endocannabinoid system, because something completely undoubtable is that we probably wouldn’t be alive without it!


  • marijuanatimes.org/the-endocannabinoid-system-a-history-of-endocannabinoids-and-cannabis/
  • norml.org/library/item/introduction-to-the-endocannabinoid-system
  • leafly.com/news/science-tech/what-is-the-endocannabinoid-system