What is the Endocannabinoid System?

What is the Endocannabinoid System

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What is the Endocannabinoid System?

Even with our great advancements in modern medicine, one part of the body is only just recently being studied in depth. The Endocannabinoid system. As CBD and other cannabis-related products are becoming more readily available, scientists and medical researchers are finally able to study this substance and its effects on humans and other creatures as well. 

It is almost every day that we see articles being published that provide a better understanding of cannabinoids and their effects and benefits. In this article, we will delve into what the Endocannabinoid system (ECS) is and describe the latest understanding of how it works.

Discovery of the endocannabinoid system

It is suspected that all animals with a spinal column have an endocannabinoid system [6]. More research needs to be done on the subject but for right now, it seems that humans are not the only organism that can benefit from ECS support.

FUN FACT! Dogs and other pets also have an endocannabinoid system too [2] and might also benefit from homeostasis support with dog-friendly CBD treats.

The ECS was discovered in the early 1990s in a roundabout way by Raphael Mechoulam, a scientist in Israel who taught Organic and Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He and his team discovered the main active ingredient in cannabis as THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the main psychoactive cannabinoid that gets you “high”. His work eventually led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system and endogenous cannabinoids that are naturally made by the human body called anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG). You don’t need to remember these names, only that we’ve discovered a couple of naturally made cannabinoids within the human body (endocannabinoids).

 “endo-” is a Greek prefix that means “within, containing, or inner”.

The key point is that scientists now had a starting place from which to begin investigations into the function and physiology of the cellular receptor messaging system in the ECS.

Endocannabinoid System Diagram


Before we can talk in more depth about the endocannabinoid system, we need to understand the concept of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the tendency toward maintaining a steady state. A simple example of homeostasis is seen in the programming of a household thermostat. When the temperature outside of the house “organism” drops, the thermostat detects the decreasing temperature inside the house due to the changing external conditions. Corrective measures are then taken (the thermostat triggers the furnace start-up and the heater turns on) to maintain a steady internal state (the thermostat setting of 72 °F). When the desired steady-state (72 ° F) is achieved, the thermostat signals the corrective measure (furnace) to turn off so that the house does not get too hot. The process works the same if the organism is too hot, measures are taken to cool the body (sweat) or in the case of our house organism, the air conditioning turns on.

Now imagine how complex the system needs to be to maintain all the vital statistics and organs going on in your body at the same time. Your “operating system” must monitor and maintain levels of millions of biological processes simultaneously just to sustain life, let alone correct systems that are out of whack. And all of this happens without you having to worry about a thing!

 Are your cells getting enough oxygen? Are there enough red blood cells to carry the needed oxygen to the rest of the body? Are the lungs breathing enough times per minute to supply the red blood cells with oxygen? Are you now very conscious of your breathing?

Fun Fact! Your breathing is controlled subconsciously through your autonomic nervous system so that you don’t forget to breathe when you’re not paying attention. Respiratory rate can also be controlled consciously so that when you swim, you can still hold your breath! But don’t worry, you can’t forget to breathe, your brain has back up systems for that situation too!

Homeostasis is important because it creates a constant and stable environment in which our body can thrive. The endocannabinoid system has been found to support the homeostatic mechanisms within your body.

Endocannabinoid Receptors: CB1 and CB2

Scientists found two receptors that are part of the ECS and named them CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptors are mainly found in the brain and the rest of the nervous system and are the site of action for cannabinoids of any origin. [8] Further investigations have gone on to show that the CB1 and CB2 receptors are intricately involved in modulating the body’s homeostasis [1], [3].

The CB2 receptors are found mostly in the organs and the immune system [4]. When cannabidiol (CBD) is used to trigger the receptor, it does not cause psychoactive effects and doesn’t give the same “high” feeling that THC creates.

Now that we know what homeostasis is and how the endocannabinoid system was discovered, let’s talk about how the two interact and complement each other.

How the ECS helps with homeostasis

The endocannabinoid system includes the receptor, the endocannabinoid molecules and the enzymes that immediately remove any unneeded supply. The endocannabinoids are created as they are needed and aren’t stored anywhere in your body like hormones or neurotransmitters.

Phytocannabinoids that are found in the cannabis and hemp plants can be used in the same way that the endocannabinoids that are naturally made by your body are used. CBD can help support your homeostasis systems when your natural supply of endocannabinoids runs low or if your body cannot make enough by itself to meet the demand quickly [3], [6].

Maintaining homeostasis is vitally important for human health and it is suspected that the endocannabinoid system plays a huge regulatory part in keeping us in that homeostasis sweet spot [3], [6]. Studies have shown that the ECS could play a major part in many homeostatic processes like [1]:

  •         Immune System
  •         Chronic Pain and inflammation
  •         Weight Loss [5]
  •         Cardiovascular Support [5]
  •         Motivation and Learning
  •         Sleeping and wake cycles
  •         Reproductive System
  •         Memory and Stress

Pain is not always a bad thing

It is important to our survival to know when we might be in danger, our body has adapted and attempts to prevent damage to our body by using our senses to trigger a pain signal. When someone steps on your foot, two signals are sent, one signal is sent to the spinal cord and triggers the reflex to pull away from the crushing force of your friend’s foot, jerking your foot backward before you even knew that your foot was hurting. The second signal is sent to the part of the brain where the pain is felt, and you think “ouch! My foot hurts!” 

FUN SCIENCE FACT: Have you ever noticed that you pull your hand away from a hot object before you noticed the pain? That’s because the pathway for the withdrawal reflex only needs to travel to the spinal cord and back, whereas the pain sensation must travel a longer distance to the brain and back. Once you’re aware of the pain, you can head over to the sink and run cold water over your finger to make it feel better.

The problem with chronic pain is that our body is CONSTANTLY telling us that the painful area should be cared for and rested to prevent further injury. For some chronic pain sufferers, it is a constant struggle between managing the pain and managing the side effects from the painkillers. Supportive CBD therapy offers new hope for chronic pain sufferers [1], [7].


Scientists studying CBD





AMA Citation




Costa, B., Trovato, A.E., Comelli, F., Giagnoni, G. (2007). The non-psychoactive cannabis constituent cannabidiol is an orally effective therapeutic agent in rat chronic inflammatory and neuropathic pain. Eur. J. Pharmacol, 556 1-3, 75-83.




Eisch AJ, Barrot M, Schad CA, Self DW, Nestler EJ. (2000). Opiates inhibit neurogenesis in the adult rat hippocampus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 97(13):7579–7584.




Elphick MR, Egertová M. (2001). The neurobiology and evolution of cannabinoid signalling. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 356(1407):381–408.




Jiang W, Zhang Y, Xiao L, et al. (2005). Cannabinoids promote embryonic and adult hippocampus neurogenesis and produce anxiolytic- and antidepressant-like effects. J Clin Invest, 115(11):3104–3116.




Mach, F. and Steffens, S. (2008). The Role of the Endocannabinoid System in Atherosclerosis. J. Neuroendocrinol., 20: 53-57.




Wu, J. (2019). Cannabis, cannabinoid receptors, and endocannabinoid system: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Acta Pharmacol Sin, 40, 297–299.




Xiong W, C. T. (2012). Cannabinoids suppress inflammatory and neuropathic pain by targeting α3 glycine receptors. J Exp Med, 209(6):1121–1134.




Zou S, Kumar U. . (2018). Cannabinoid Receptors and the Endocannabinoid System: Signaling and Function in the Central Nervous System. Int J Mol Sci, 19(3):833


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