The Endocannabinoid System

Updated: Jan 8, 2020

Every day brings new stories and newly released research touting the benefits of cannabis and how it can help heal mind and body. Many of us have our own personal testimonials regarding cannabis and how it has helped us.

But how exactly does the cannabis plant interact with the human body? How does one plant do so much for us?


The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) makes it all possible!

This 600 million year old biological system remained unknown to humanity until 1988, when it was discovered by Israeli researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. Named after the cannabis plant that led to its discovery, the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is critical to regulating the proper function of a wide range of bodily processes. It plays an important role in your endorphin system, digestive system, vanilloid system, nervous system, immune system, digestive system, your organs, blood cells, lymph cells, bone, and muscle.

Currently the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is known to include a number of components:

  • Receptor sites on your cells called CB1 and CB2 receptors.

  • Biological compounds known as endocannabinoids produced by the human body from neurotransmitters such as anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).

  • Five enzymes that impact the manufacture of these endocannabinoids. DAGLα and DAGLβ synthesize 2-AG while NAPE selective phospholipase-D synthesizes anandamide. MAGL breaks down 2-AG while FAAH breaks down anandamide.

Photos © Shelly Williams 2001-2019

The ECS is believed to have more cellular receptor sites than any other receptor system in the human body!

CB1 and CB2 receptors are the two primary cannabinoid receptors in the Endocannabinoid System. Each receptor type tends to concentrate in their own particular areas. For example CB1 receptors are found mainly in the brain, while CB2 receptors are more often found on the immune cells, in the gastrointestinal tract, and throughout the peripheral nervous system. This widespread distribution shows just how important the ECS is to overall health!

Anandamide is a type of essential fatty acid that binds to CB1 receptors in the brain. Its name is derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss.

2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) is another type of fatty acid metabolite, but with a less elegant name. It functions slightly different to anandamide due to the fact it is able to bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptor sites.

When anandamide binds to the CB1 receptors in the brain it produces a calming effect and a mild state of bliss. Research has shown that this process plays an important role in memory formation, higher thought processes, movement control and motivation.

Both anandamide and 2-AG play a crucial role in cell-to-cell communications. They make sure all the cells in a particular area of the body are working together towards the same goal.

Photos © Shelly Williams 2001-2019

“But why did it take so long to discover such an incredible system?” you may be asking.

For one, clinical cannabis research has been heavily suppressed and interfered with for nearly a century. For decades the only way to acquire funding for cannabis research was to frame it negatively, otherwise no further funding would come. Only now are we starting to receive truly scientific, unbiased studies regarding the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine.

Another, less insidious reason for the long delayed discovery of the ECS is that it operates locally, and on demand. What this means is that when a need arises for endocannabinoid signaling, the neurotransmitters anandamide and 2-AG are manufactured, bind to their targeted receptors, and then vanish. It is only in the latter half of the 20th century that medical research technology reached a level capable of detecting the ECS.

Whew! That's a lot of information! And a lot of technical information at that! Let's see if we can sum it up nice and simple to conclude.

Long story short, the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is connected to all your body's other systems, and attempts to maintain homeostasis in your body between its natural buildup and breakdown functions. The ECS leaps into action when the body is in a diseased state, attempting to restore normal function. It is pinpoint in its actions yet active throughout the entire body. CB1 and CB2 receptors are present throughout the body and receptor activation occurs in seconds and then disappears. If your Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is out of balance, it takes your entire body out of balance with it. When the ECS is in balance, it can then bring your entire health and well-being into balance!

I hope this post was at least a little bit enlightening! I would encourage you, dear reader, to venture out into the wide world of cannabis research, to learn more about the Endocannabinoid System and how it helps maintain a full body wellness and health.

In our next post, we will talk about phytocannabinoids such as CBD and THC and how they interact with your endocannabinoid system!

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