The Endocannabinoid System: Everything You Need to Know


Though it’s one of the body’s most crucial systems, it’s also one of the least understood. The endogenous cannabinoid system, also known as the endocannabinoid system or ECS, has recently become the subject of scientific research and more study is needed to learn how these receptors work. Here, we’ll look at the endocannabinoid system and why its study is essential.

The Endocannabinoid System: What Is It?

Found in the central nervous system, immune system, brain, and organs of almost all animals, the endocannabinoid system is a collection of receptors. These all-important components interact with naturally produced compounds called endocannabinoids, which are believed to affect numerous bodily processes and functions. Scientists believe that animals evolved to have an ECS more than 500 million years ago.

Why is the Endocannabinoid System Function So Important?

The ECS is the body’s largest receptor system, and some researchers believe it’s the most crucial physiological system involved in the establishment and maintenance of overall health. The endocannabinoid system maintains homeostasis (balance), which keeps our immune system and cells healthy. Scientific research indicates that the ECS plays a key role in endocrine function, energy balance, immune function, mood, reproduction, memory, and much more.

What’s the ECS Made Of?

The endocannabinoid system can be separated into three components, with each playing an important role in the system’s function. In this section, we’ll look at the inner workings of the ECS.

  • Cannabinoid receptors come in two types: CB1 and CB2. These receptors react to cannabinoids in various ways, mediating their effects.
  • Endocannabinoids are produced by the body and work to activate the receptors mentioned above. Different endogenous cannabinoids have varying effects on receptors and bodily functions.
  • Enzymes found only within the endocannabinoid system help the body to metabolize and recycle endocannabinoids.

While CB1 receptors are found in the spinal cord and brain, affecting memory and appetite, CB2 receptors are found primarily within the immune system.

The Role of Endocannabinoids

These compounds, as previously mentioned, are naturally produced by the body’s cells. Endocannabinoids, along with receptors, make up the endocannabinoid system and exist in organs, glands, connective tissues, immune cells, and the brain. When cells are out of balance, the ECS works to restore homeostasis. Therefore, our bodies must constantly produce endocannabinoids to address imbalances.

The Body’s Main Endocannabinoids

  • 2-AG is the most prevalent cannabinoid in the entire ECS. It’s believed to regulate immune function and appetite.
  • Anandamide is named for the Sanskrit word for happiness. As such, it works to regulate mood.

Other cannabinoids are found in smaller quantities, but they still work within the ECS to regulate various bodily functions.

ECS Deficiencies

New research suggests that internal endocannabinoid deficiencies may be linked to certain health issues. ECS deficiencies occur when the system isn’t working as it should, or when the body doesn’t produce enough of its own cannabinoids. While we need additional research to understand the effects of ECS deficiency, we know how important the system is to the maintenance of health and homeostasis.

Why is Homeostasis So Important?

The endocannabinoid system only has one goal: homeostasis. During external changes such as stress, temperature fluctuations, or chemical exposure, the ECS works to stabilize our internal environment. By striving for homeostasis, the ECS regulates many crucial functions and ensures the body’s stability.

How Cannabis and the ECS Are Related

For many years, scientists didn’t understand why cannabis byproducts affect humans the way they do. In the 1990s, however, an Israeli doctor named Raphael Mechoulam discovered the endocannabinoid system. With his research team, Dr. Mechoulam found natural neurotransmitters, known as endocannabinoids, that are nearly the same as the natural compounds found in cannabis plants. We’re just now learning how these compounds affect human health.

The Role of Phytocannabinoids

A phytocannabinoid is a compound that’s naturally made by a marijuana or hemp plant. Research indicates that the best way to bolster ECS function is to ingest phytocannabinoids. There are over 100 known compounds in cannabis, and most aren’t fully understood. Of all the compounds found in cannabis, CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are the most well-known. While THC provides the high for which marijuana is known, it also affects essential functions such as appetite.

CBD is found in high levels in hemp plants, and it doesn’t bind directly to ECS receptors. However, scientists believe that it may work to prevent the degradation of the body’s natural cannabinoids. It’s also thought to mitigate the euphoric effects of THC, in a phenomenon known as the entourage effect.

Along with its indirect role in ECS function and its augmentation of the effects of other cannabinoids, CBD is believed to offer its own benefits. The compound has been the subject of in-depth research to determine how these properties can be used in our everyday lives.

Cannabinoids and Their Effects on Mental Health

While many efforts are focused on physical health, emotional health is equally important in the maintenance of homeostasis. Endocannabinoids form a bridge between the body and the mind. With the receptors found throughout the body, natural cannabinoids work to regulate stress response, mood, and other emotional functions.

These effects are probably due to the receptors’ interaction with anandamide and other endocannabinoids, or their connection to it. While anandamide is produced internally, it can be controlled by the existence of phytocannabinoids, which may emphasize its effects on the endocannabinoid system. Scientists are examining the connection between phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids in hopes of determining the nature of the relationship.

Advancing Research to Support the Endocannabinoid System and Our Overall Health: What We Can Do

Strict regulations have made it very difficult for scientists in the United States to use cannabis to perform crucial clinical trials and research. However, institutions such as UC Davis, UCLA, UCSF, and UC San Diego are taking important steps toward medicinal cannabis research. Until the country’s laws change for the better, it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to support research efforts and gain a greater understanding of the body’s endocannabinoid system.