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Endocannabinoid System 101: How Does It Work?

If you’ve tried cannabis, you know how it can help you unwind, relieve pain, or feel less anxious. But how does it “work?” It’s all thanks to something called the endogenous cannabinoid system, or the endocannabinoid system or ECS for short. Keep reading to learn about the important role the ECS plays in your body – and your cannabis experience. 

What is the endocannabinoid system?

The endocannabinoid system is a series of receptors throughout your body, and especially the central nervous system and immune system. It regulates a wide range of functions, from pain perception to mood to appetite and more. This system is influenced by endocannabinoids made by your body and phytocannabinoids that come from cannabis. 

The ECS consists of two main types of receptors called the CB1 receptor and CB2 receptor. Cannabinoids, whether endogenous or plant-based, influence these receptors by binding to them, changing their shape, or otherwise influencing them. This process “activates” or “deactivates” the receptors, pulling on the levers of the ECS and influencing your body and mind.

When was the ECS discovered?

The ECS was first discovered in 1992, when world renowned cannabis researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his team of researchers first encountered the endocannabinoid now known as anandamide. This was nearly three decades after Mechoulam first identified THC and CBD and started researchers on the path to discovery. Identifying anandamide — and subsequently the ECS — would begin to reveal the answers to their questions.

What does the endocannabinoid system influence in your body?

The ECS is a sprawling system that exists throughout your brain, central nervous system, skin, digestive system, immune system – you name it, and your ECS influences it. Memory, mood, appetite and metabolism, sleep, pain perception, stress and anxiety, inflammation, and immunity are among what’s influenced by your ECS.

More research into exactly how the ECS influences each of these systems and functions is ongoing. However, early studies show clear links between the ECS and cannabinoids when it comes to each. This supports the theory that phytocannabinoids derived from cannabis could be incorporated into the treatment of various medical conditions.

How does the endocannabinoid system work?

The ECS exists and functions independently of cannabis. As Mechoulam described it in a 2018 interview: “Receptors don’t exist because there’s a plant out there. Receptors exist because we, through compounds made in our body, activate them.”

The two most famous endogenous cannabinoids are anandamide and 2-AG, as these were the first two that Mechoulam and his team identified.

Although these two endocannabinoids are by far the most commonly mentioned, Mechoulam and his team identified hundreds of these chemicals, all of which are naturally produced by your body. The ECS and the endogenous cannabinoids that influence it may offer holistic effects that could revolutionize modern medicine, according to Mechoulam and colleagues. Better understanding the ECS is a major priority for medical researchers of all disciplines.

“Two eminent scientists at the NIH said that the endocannabinoid system is involved in essentially all human disease,” said Mechoulam in the 2018 interview. “This is a very strong statement, but it seems to be correct. Today we know that the endocannabinoid system — the receptors, the endocannabinoids, the enzymes that form and break down the endocannabinoids — are involved in many physiological reactions, and therefore in many disease states.”

What role does cannabis play in the endocannabinoid system?

THC, CBD, and all other phytocannabinoids have a similar effect on your body and mind as the endocannabinoids Mechoulam discovered. Everyone’s ECS is also slightly different, which is a major reason why cannabis has a different effect from person to person. 

While the mysteries of the ECS are still being uncovered by researchers, this variation in experience is likely due to different balances in cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids. That’s why what works best for someone else might not always work best for you. 

How THC and CBD work within the endocannabinoid system

To better illustrate how phytocannabinoids and the ECS work together, let’s take a look at how two household names, THC and CBD, are thought to influence cannabinoid receptors in your brain and body. 

  • THC: The primary psychoactive compound found in cannabis directly binds to CB and CB receptors, activating them on a limited basis. It’s a partial agonist on these receptors.
    THC activates these receptors by directly binding to them, resulting in intoxication, appetite stimulation, and reduction in pain perception. At low levels, THC may also alleviate stress and anxiety, though at high levels it could exacerbate them.
  • CBD: Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t bind directly to either the CB or CB receptor. Researchers believe that it might influence the shape and size of the receptor, affecting how THC and other phytocannabinoids bind to the receptors. CBD may also prevent endocannabinoids from breaking down. As a result, the phytocannabinoids interact in a process called “the entourage effect,” which is when phytocannabinoids (and terpenes!) influence one another’s effects.

There are more than 100 phytocannabinoids discovered so far, in addition to the hundreds of endocannabinoids produced by the human body. If theories about the entourage effect are correct, that means there are virtually countless combinations of cannabinoids that could influence the ECS and everything it affects.

Who has an endocannabinoid system?

Humans have an endocannabinoid system, as do all mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. In fact, the presence of an ECS has been identified in nearly all other members of the animal kingdom. Even many invertebrates have an ECS, including sea urchins, leeches, and nematodes.

Can you have an endocannabinoid deficiency?

Yes, it’s possible to have an endocannabinoid deficiency! Symptoms of an endocannabinoid deficiency include migraines, GI issues, fibromyalgia, inflammation, and neurological conditions.  Additionally, an excess of endocannabinoids could also cause health issues, like metabolic syndrome, and hepatic fibrosis. Research into this is ongoing.

The ECS is at the center of it all

The next time you’re smoking a joint or enjoying an edible, take a moment to thank your ECS. While it may be a happy accident that this unique plant evolved alongside humans to contain compounds that influence the ECS, the scientific community is first scratching the surface on the “how” and “why” behind it all. So, the next time you’re in your favorite local dispensary and you find the perfect product that suits your needs, remember that it all comes back to the ECS and the cannabinoid receptors that make it work.

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