It can be considered one of the most important systems in the body. And yet, it’s one that has only recently begun to be studied and understood. The endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS), also called the Endocannabinoid System, has only recently become a subject of intense research and much remains to be learned about how this series of receptors actually works. Here’s a look at the basics of the ECS and why further research is so important.
What exactly is the Endocannabinoid System?
Found throughout the brain, central nervous system, immune system, and organs of humans and all mammals — birds, fish and reptiles, too — the ECS is essentially just a series of receptors. These receptors interact with compounds produced by our bodies, known as endogenous cannabinoids (or endocannabinoids for short), which are thought to govern a vast array of bodily functions and processes. Scientists predict that humans evolved to possess this system over 500 million years ago.*
Why is the ECS important to our wellbeing?
The ECS is the largest biological system of receptors in the body, and some scientists believe it is the most important physiological system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.* Its job is to maintain homeostasis, or balance, and to keep our cells and immune system healthy.* Research suggests the ECS plays an important role in the regulation of endocrine function, the control of energy balance, reproductive functions, immune system functions, appetite, mood, memory, and more.*
What is the ECS made up of?
The ECS can be broken down into three simple elements. Each element plays an important role in ensuring the ECS functions properly. Here’s a closer look at what makes the ECS tick:
- 1. Cannabinoid receptors: There are two known cannabinoid receptors: the CB1 receptor and the CB2 receptor. These receptors mediate the effects of cannabinoids, reacting to different cannabinoids in different ways.*
- 2. Endocannabinoids: Endogenous cannabinoids are produced by your body and activate cannabinoid receptors. Different compounds have different influences on each receptor and larger bodily functions.*
- 3. Enzymes: Enzymes specific to the ECS help the body break down and recycle the endocannabinoids.*
What are the two main receptors within the ECS?
Cannabinoids interact with these receptors, influencing the central nervous system and immune system, among other systems.* There are two types of cannabinoid receptors that make up the ECS. These include:
- CB1 receptors: These receptors regulate appetite and memory. They are found in the brain and spinal cord.*
- CB2 receptors: These receptors influence the immune system and are found there, as well as in other areas of the body.*
What are Endocannabinoids?
Endocannabinoids are compounds naturally produced by cells in our body.* Endocannabinoids, along with the CB1 and CB2 receptors, make up the ECS and exist throughout the body in the brain, immune cells, organs, glands and connective tissues.* When something brings a cell out of balance, the ECS is often called upon to restore the previous physiological situation, thus maintaining homeostasis.* As a result, our bodies are constantly producing endocannabinoids to address internal imbalances.*
What are the two main endocannabinoids naturally produced inside the body?
- 2-AG: This endocannabinoid is the most prevalent compound in the ECS. It is thought to be responsible for managing appetite and immune system function.*
- Anandamide: This endocannabinoid is named after “Ananda,” the Sanskrit word for “bliss” and “happiness.” It is aptly named, as it is considered “the bliss molecule” and is responsible for regulation of mood.*
What is endocannabinoid system deficiency?
Growing research suggests that a deficiency of endocannabinoids in the body may be linked to specific health issues.* Endocannabinoid System Deficiency is a theory for the symptoms and conditions that develop when the Endocannabinoid System isn't functioning properly, or when there aren't enough endocannabinoids present in the body.* While we still need more research to fully understand the impact of Endocannabinoid Deficiency, we do understand the importance of a healthy Endocannabinoid System to maintain health and support homeostasis.*
Why is homeostasis good?
The ECS has one goal in mind: homeostasis. Throughout changes in our external environment, such as temperature, stress, or harmful chemical exposures, our ECS works to maintain a stable internal environment.* By working to achieve homeostasis, the ECS regulates the many functions necessary for survival and ensures that the body is stable and works in harmony.*
How are the ECS and the cannabis plant related?
For the longest time, we didn’t understand why cannabis affected humans. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Dr. Raphael Mechoulam discovered the ECS in his laboratory at the Hebrew University in Israel. Together with his team, Dr. Mechoulam uncovered naturally occurring neurotransmitters (called endocannabinoids) that are almost identical in structure to the compounds produced by the cannabis plant (called phytocannabinoids). From here, we uncovered the active compounds in hemp and marijuana, and we are just beginning to understand how they impact human health.
What are phytocannabinoids?
Phytocannabinoids are naturally occurring cannabinoids found in the hemp and marijuana plants. Science suggests that the most effective way to support our ECS is by ingesting phytocannabinoids.* There are more than 100 identified phytocannabinoids in cannabis and the majority are understudied and not properly understood.
What are the two main phytocannabinoids and how are they different?
The two major phytocannabinoids known today are Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These compounds are the two most well-known cannabinoids found in the hemp and marijuana plants.
THC, present in high levels in the marijuana plant, is responsible for “the high” often associated with cannabis. THC binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body, also affecting appetite and other essential body functions.*
CBD, present in high levels in the hemp plant, doesn’t directly bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors — scientists believe that CBD may prevent the breakdown of naturally occurring endocannabinoids in the body.* It is also thought to augment the influence of THC, part of something known as “the entourage effect.” The entourage effect is a theory among researchers that various phytocannabinoids work together in a synergistic manner to augment and enhance one another’s effects.
In addition to CBD’s expected indirect role in influencing the ECS and augmenting the effects of THC and other cannabinoids, it is thought by researchers to offer some benefits of its own. It has been the subject of intense scrutiny in the scientific community to determine how these properties may apply to our everyday lives.
How do cannabinoids regulate our mental health?
Emotional health is just as important as physical health in overall body harmony, and endocannabinoids are considered “literally a bridge between body and mind.” With ECS receptors present in the brain and throughout the body, phytocannabinoids help to regulate emotional functions like mood and stress response.*
This is likely due to their interaction with endogenous cannabinoids like anandamide, or their close relation to it. While anandamide is an internally produced compound, it can be modulated by the presence of phytocannabinoids, potentially emphasizing its effect on the ECS and regulation of mood and energy.* Researchers are continuing to examine the link between endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids to discover more about the nature of this relationship.
What can we do to advance cannabis research to support our ECS and therefore, our health?
Regulatory complexities have made it difficult for U.S. scientists to conduct meaningful research and clinical trials with cannabis. However, academic institutions like UCLA, UC Davis, UC San Diego, UCSF and others are taking the initiative to pioneer medical cannabis research. Until regulations change, it is up to us to do what we can to support cannabis research and further the collective understanding of the ECS.