What Is The Endocannabinoid System?

Within each of us is a complex network of receptors known as the Endocannabinoid system. Let's learn how it works.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Have you ever wondered why you get high when you consume cannabis? Or how about why your sprained ankle heals faster when you rub a bit of CBD oil on it?

Well, for that, you can thank your Endocannabinoid System.

The Endocannabinoid System, or ECS for short, is a widespread receptor network that is responsible for many phenomena in our bodies such as sleep, appetite, mood, and memory.

The term "endo" means "within" and cannabinoid means…well, cannabinoid. In essence, we have an internal system of receptors that are affected when we consume products containing cannabinoids.

Though as we'll cover, this system isn't just activated when you eat a brownie or smoke a bowl, but instead, our Endocannabinoid System is firing at all times.

How it was discovered

The Endocannabinoid System was discovered in the late 1980s, roughly two decades after the discovery of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) in 1964.

Upon identifying THC as the main compound within cannabis, scientists then began to explore why it had such a profound effect on people who consumed the compound and conducted studies on mice to find out.

In a 1988 study, researchers found out that mice had receptors for THC in their brains, which were then named cannabinoid receptors, or CB1 receptors. These receptors actually turned out to be one of the most abundant networks of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Cannabis brain
Credit: Bryan Satalino

And they weren't simply found in mice and humans, but instead, they were found in virtually all animals, from cats and dogs to birds and fish.

In 1993, a second cannabinoid receptor (CB2) was discovered, this time in the spleen of a rat. This discovery made researchers aware that cannabinoid receptors weren't just found in the brain, but rather they existed all throughout the body in a complex system.

Though as we covered earlier, our ECS doesn't just kick into gear when we consume cannabis but instead is busy at work all day long, thanks to endocannabinoids – cannabinoids that our body produces internally.

The first endocannabinoid to be discovered was named Anandamide, named after the Sanskrit term Ananda which means "inner bliss," and binds to our CB1 and CB2 receptors to help influence our memory, mood, and even fertility.

The role of the Endocannabinoid System

Our ECS isn't simply there to enable us to get high but rather serves an integral purpose in preserving our body's natural homeostasis – making sure all cylinders are firing and we're in the "Goldilock's Zone" of optimal health.

It's when our body falls out of its natural state of equilibrium, or homeostasis, that ailments and diseases begin to occur, which is why our ECS is so important.

With the 'pro-homeostatic action of the ECS' we mean that this system of chemical signals gets temporarily activated following deviations from cellular homeostasis. When such deviations are non-physiological, the temporarily activated ECS attempts, in a space- and time-selective manner, to restore the previous physiological situation (homeostasis).

Dr. Vincenzo Di Marzo, Research Director at the Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry in Italy.

Take inflammation as an example. When your body notices a foreign bacteria or infection, chemicals are released to the infected area in order to increase blood flow and protect your body from any invaders.

Fighting viruses is an important process, as it prevents the situation from getting worse and expedites the body's natural healing process.

However, it is just as important for the body to know when to stop the inflammation process. If the body is unable to detect that the virus is no longer there, it will continue sending chemicals throughout the body, resulting in chronic inflammation, which has its own host of issues.

This is where our ECS typically comes in, which acts as a watchful eye over the inflammation process, ensuring that inflammation is both regulated and stopped when needed.

Our ECS is responsible for virtually everything we feel, from our appetite, our mood, our sleep patterns, stress levels, and our ability to prevent illness.

In fact, many health professionals are now adopting the term "Endocannabinoid Deficiency," which is the belief that many ailments arise when our bodies fail to produce enough endocannabinoids.

If you're falling ill frequently, chances are it's because your ECS is out of whack. When this happens, the first response should be some lifestyle changes.

Ethan Russo, MD of the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, has stated that "lifestyle approaches can be integral to fostering a healthy ECS." Such approaches include "regular aerobic exercise and following an anti-inflammatory diet, such as a Mediterranean diet, with emphasis on olive oil, fish, seeds, and nuts."

Endocannabinoid System

Where Cannabis Fits In

Now, to answer the question you've probably been waiting for…what role does cannabis play on our ECS?

Well, all phenomena associated with marijuana intoxication are as a result of the ingested cannabinoids altering the way our ECS works.

So if you have THC, for example, your appetite will likely increase, your mood could increase (or cause anxiety in some people), you'll likely become more lethargic, and your coordination will worsen over time.

This occurs because cannabis acts like a key, and our ECS is like a lock. Consuming cannabis can activate and deactivate certain receptors to generate specific responses.

Conversely, if you have CBD, the compound will activate a receptor known as GPR55, which has been shown to help treat pain and inflammation.

CBD has also been shown to initiate the 5-HT1A receptor, which some believe is why CBD works as an antidepressant, anti-epilepsyanti-anxiety, and neuroprotective compound.

This is why CBD proves so effective for children suffering from epilepsy, as it interacts with our ECS in such a way that some researchers believe it calms the inflammation of the brain.

Though make no mistake, simply "topping up" your ECS with ten joints a day isn't going to be the next big life-hack, as that in itself will throw your body out of balance. Make sure to eat right, exercise, and get the right sleep, and your body should naturally do the rest.

If you're facing a chronic illness, and you think you might suffer from an ECS deficiency, speak to a health or medical professional about consuming CBD.

And there you have it, the Endocannabinoid System in a nutshell.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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