What is the Endocannabinoid System?

We’ve all heard about CBD and how it can provide health benefits to improve our quality of life. But how exactly does it work in our body? Various scientists have tried to come up with the answer to this question, and there is still a lot left unknown. One thing that is certain is that it works with our endocannabinoid system to produce its effects.

That may leave us with one question. What is the endocannabinoid system? Read on to find out.

endocannabinoid system

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

Do you know we have an entire system in our body dedicated to interact with cannabis? This is called the endocannabinoid system. It’s name comes from the word cannabinoid, which comes from cannabis, and endo which is short for endogenous which means produced naturally inside the body. So endocannabinoid refers to cannabis like substances that occur inside the body.

Knowledge of the ECS is limited and relatively new. It was first discovered by Dr. L.A. Matsuda in the late 80’s when scientists were trying to find out how THC, the primary intoxicating substance in marijuana, affected the body. That’s when they discovered a complex network of the central and peripheral nervous system, also known as the endocannabinoid system.

The ECS is made of three parts; endocannabinoids, receptors in the nervous system and around the body that endocannabinoids and cannabinoids bond with, and enzymes that help break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids.

But the endocannabinoid system is not just there to aid in the way we react to cannabis. It is a crucial part of our bodily functions. Here are some of the important roles it plays in the human body.

How The Endocannabinoid System Helps Us Function

Homeostasis: Before finding out about how the ECS helps in homeostasis, let’s first understand what exactly homeostasis is.

Homeostasis is your body’s efforts to keep everything stable no matter what might be going on around you. It works to keep your hormones, temperature, blood pressure levels and more, all functioning within normal range. If it detects something abnormal happening, it works to correct it. For example, if you are really hot, you sweat to cool down. That’s homeostasis at work!

Homeostasis occurs via your cannabinoid receptors, the CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 is located in the central nervous system. When activated, it can provide the following benefits:

  • Relieving depression
  • Increasing myelin formation
  • Reducing intestinal inflammation
  • Decreasing intestinal permeability
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Lowering anxiety
  • Reducing fear and paranoia
  • Increasing BDNF levels (a gene that provides protein for the brain and spinal cord)
  • Increasing PPAR expression (regulates the expression of genes)
  • Lowering prolactin

CB2 is located in the peripheral nervous system. Activating the CB2 receptor induces macrophages to destroy the beta amyloid protein which is the main component of the plaque found in the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease. It is also being looked for its potential to reduce inflammation and fight cancer.

The CB1 and CB2 receptors help the endocannabinoid system to regulate important functions such as:

  • Appetite
  • Digestion
  • Immune Function
  • Inflammation
  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • Reproduction
  • Motor control
  • Temperature
  • Memory
  • Pain
  • Pleasure

eating right

The endocannabinoid system is activated only when necessary. If it detects something is out of track, it regulates it specifically and does not interfere with any other bodily functions. Then, once the endocannabinoids have done their job, enzymes come to break them down, preventing them from going too far and upsetting the delicate balance of things.

When the endocannabinoid system is not functioning properly, and homeostasis is not occurring, it could result in major health issues.

The endocannabinoid system also plays an important role in the regulation of brain cell firing to regulate homeostasis in the brain. Brain cells communicate by sending electrochemical signals to each other. Neurons listen to each other to decide whether it will fire off its own signal. But if neurons get too much input, they can become overloaded by signals, a situation that might cause health issues.

When neurons receive too much input, they will create endocannabinoids where they are connected to the overactive neuron. These endocannabinoids will travel back to the overactive neuron transmitting a system that instructs it to quiet down. This how homeostasis is being maintained.

When it comes to inflammation, the endocannabinoid system plays an important role as well. Inflammation is a natural response to infection or physical damage. It works to remove pathogens and damaged tissues and is produced by immune cells that move to this area to perform this function.

Although inflammation is an important bodily function in this sense, there are situations where it can become chronic. This occurs when inflammation moves to healthy cells. In these cases, autoimmune diseases can occur.

It has been shown that endocannabinoids can suppress or limit the immune system’s inflammatory signals to minimize the risk of autoimmune diseases. Here’s a bit about how it works.

When the immune system detects a bacterial infection, it works to release proinflammatory molecules that tell other immune cells to start fighting the infection as well. Endocannabinoids are also released during this process.

Once endocannabinoids are released, they signal other cells for assistance. The cells also may help limit inflammatory response to keep it from getting excessive. This regulation of inflammation allows the body to destroy germs, remove damaged tissue, and then stop and return to balance.

This function can be improved upon when the endocannabinoid system is tweaked, a benefit that cannabinoids can provide.

The Role of Cannabis on the Endocannabinoid System

When we smoke marijuana, the THC from the plant attaches to the CB1 receptor to create a high. As this happens, an endocannabinoid in the body called anandamide attaches to the same receptor. Anandamide and THC are similar, but anandamide does not cause a high. Rather it produces a calming effect.

The reason anandamide doesn’t get us high and THC does is because anandamide is a substance that exists in the body naturally, while THC is not. Therefore, the body uses something called the FAAH enzyme to break down the anandamide but not the THC. This allows the THC to stay in our systems longer, having a greater effect.

Now let’s look at another plant based cannabinoid that has been getting a lot of attention for the health benefits it can provide, cannabidiol. CBD produces the same calming effects THC provides without any psychoactive properties. One way it works is to stop the FAAH enzyme from breaking down anandamide allowing it to have more of an impact. This is believed to be the reason the compound is effective in treating anxiety disorders.

CBD also works to combat inflammation by suppressing inflammatory response pathways, stimulating the production of regulatory cells and managing pain perception. It can reduce seizures in those suffering with severe forms of epilepsy like Dravet Syndrome and Lennox Gastaut Syndrome. It does this by slowing down excitatory nerve activity and subsiding the brain’s reaction to the intensified signals that cause brain overload.

CBD can also work to activate TRPV1 receptors which are involved in regulating pain, body temperature and inflammation. That’s why the compound is effective at minimizing these responses in the body.

Diet and Exercise Can Also Boost the Endocannabinoid System

While cannabis compounds can work to boost the endocannabinoid system, a healthy diet and the proper amount of exercise will also work with the system to improve wellbeing as well. Prolonged aerobic exercise will increase levels of anandamide to make you feel good and limit depression and anxiety. A healthy diet that is rich in omega 3’s will cause a similar effect.

Endocannabinoid Deficiency

As more information becomes available about the endocannabinoid system, it has been discovered that there are a number of conditions that can be related to the dysregulation of the system. The dysregulation is known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). While the condition isn’t a disease itself, the deficiency can manifest in the human body as fibromyalgia, migraine headaches or irritable bowel syndrome.

Often these conditions are chronic and resistant to most treatments. CBD has been recommended as a good way to treat the symptoms but can not cure CECD as a whole. Researchers are still searching for a cure for the deficiency.

The Endocannabinoid System and Medical Research

Even though the endocannabinoid system was introduced to the world of medicine almost 30 years ago, many doctors are still slow on the pick up. In fact, a study conducted by Medical Evaluation in Sacramento surveyed medical schools in the U.S. to see whether the endocannabinoid system was included in their curriculum. It was found that only 13% of schools teach about the endocannabinoid system to future doctors.

This lack of knowledge can be frustrating for many patients when they try to talk to their doctors about whether cannabis supplements are right for them. Patients are advised to continue bringing the compounds into the conversation to try to motivate doctors to find out more about this breakthrough and whether cannabis supplements could be beneficial for them.

cb1 and cb2 chart

Knowledge of the endocannabinoid system and the benefits provided when functions are boosted by CBD serve as proof that this compound could improve quality of life for many people. Hopefully it will continue to be adopted into the mainstream as more research is being conducted. This will lead to a significant improvement in the healthcare system as more pure, potent products become accessible to those in need.


  1. Enrique Pasion 27 May, 2019 at 22:24 Reply

    A very comprehensive primer and guide on the Endocannabinoid System. have been doing some research on this and appreciate this very informative post.

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