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Named after the plant that inspired its discovery, our endocannabinoid system supports our health and well-being by playing an integral role in regulating balance in vital aspects of our biology. 

The endocannabinoid system’s mechanisms and importance are only recently becoming understood by scientists and researchers, but the endocannabinoid system itself has been evolving over the last 500 million years and is also found in other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. 

So, what exactly is this ancient system, and how does it work?  

Endocannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system

In the 1990s, Israeli scientists began to question how and why cannabis works. 

This led them to discover that our body produces natural cannabis-like molecules called endocannabinoids (endo means created within our bodies) of which anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol are the best known. 

The endocannabinoid system is the physiological system in our body capable of interacting with these cannabinoid molecules. 

We now know the main function of our endocannabinoid system is to help our body constantly maintain homeostasis—harmony, and balance in response to changes in the environment – at a cellular level, supporting other systems to operate at their peak performance levels.

This physiological system is involved in a wide variety of internal processes, including; pain, memory, mood, appetite, stress, sleep, metabolism and immune function, and has three main components: CB1 cannabinoid receptors, CB2 cannabinoid receptors and metabolic enzymes; fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL). 

Endocannabinoids are the substances our body naturally makes to stimulate our cannabinoid receptors.

CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors and how they work

EC System

These cannabinoid receptors are embedded in cell membranes located throughout our bodies, including our:

  • Nervous systems
  • Immune systems
  • Digestive systems
  • Endocrine glands
  • Skin
  • Brains
  • Hearts
  • Lungs
  • Kidneys
  • Livers
  • Pancreas
  • Bones
  • Skeletal muscles
  • Blood Vessels
  • Lymph cells
  • Fat cells
  • Gastrointestinal tracts

As it turns out, endocannabinoids have a short half-life. They are made on-demand, when needed, by our bodies. Their role is speculated to be a “fine-tuning” of balance in our body.

This is where metabolic enzymes come into the picture.

The metabolic enzymes FAAH and MAGL break down endocannabinoids after they are used so that our bodies use endocannabinoids when needed, and then disposes of them when they are no longer necessary to promote homeostasis. 

Here is where cannabis and hemp plants come into the picture.

Cannabis and hemp contain plant substances called phytocannabinoids (Phyto means plant-based) and cannabinoids that stimulate and/or interact with our CB1 and CB2 receptors exerting their effects, in part, by mimicking our endocannabinoids. 

The most well-known being THC (Δ⁹tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD (cannabidiol), CBDa, ThCa CBDa, CBN and CBG.

What does the endocannabinoid do exactly? 

As part of the endocannabinoid system, endocannabinoid receptors are dispersed throughout our body impacting our physiological processes affecting pain modulation, anti-inflammatory effects, and other immune system responses. 

Cannabis and hemp cannabinoids interact with our endocannabinoid system by activating and/or interacting with our CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors.

CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain and central nervous system, and to a lesser extent in other tissues. CB2 receptors are mostly in the peripheral organs. Especially cells associated with the immune system.

You can think of these receptors as an internal lock and key kind of system in our bodies.

When you ingest cannabinoids found in cannabis or hemp they interact with this system, by binding to and activating cannabinoid receptors. 

Why would we need to take cannabinoids if our body is already creating them?

Keep in mind that the endocannabinoid system is a system of “homeostasis” in our body working at a cellular level, supporting other systems to operate at their peak performance levels.

When any of our biological systems are off-balance, producing too much of one thing and not enough of another, there is a disease. 

It is believed that when our body’s endocannabinoid system isn’t signally and functioning optimally due to a deficiency in endocannabinoid levels, we suffer from what is called Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CED).

The greatest evidence for Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency is shown to be present for migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) sufferers, and many other chronic illnesses.  

According to cutting-edge scientists with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), they have shown that endocannabinoid system dysregulating is in nearly all pathological conditions, saying, “It stands to reason that “modulating endocannabinoid system activity may have therapeutic potential in almost all diseases affecting humans, including neurodegenerative, cardiovascular and inflammatory disorders, obesity/metabolic syndrome, cachexia, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, tissue injury and pain, among others.”

By modulating and supporting the endocannabinoid system with CBD and THC this can slow – or in some cases even stop – disease progression.

What to do if you think you suffer from Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency?

Talk to your doctor, physician and other healthcare professional. 

If you live in a state where cannabis is not legal, or your doctor, physicians, and other healthcare professional is not knowledgeable about cannabis for medicinal use, you can find many resources online.

The Society of Cannabis Clinicians is a great place to start.