What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

The use of cannabis in medicine dates back approximately five thousand years, but it is only in the last 100 years that advanced extraction methods have led scientists to isolate and observe how specific compounds like THC or CBD act on other biological systems. The endocannabinoid system, a biological system that has been identified to exist in all vertebrates and invertebrate animals, was first described in the early 1990s as researchers tried to identify why THC had an intoxicating effect on rats. It was then observed that there was an incredibly dynamic, complex system of receptors throughout the nervous system that was responsive to THC. Further study has revealed varying receptors in major organs, the immune system, and the GI tract, and scientists have now inferred based on genetic comparison that the ECS has been evolving for some 600 million years.

But what is it doing? In a word, the endocannabinoid system is a regulator. Acting as the body’s umbrella, it helps to promote homeostasis, or balance, for every process underneath it. This includes regulate nervous system functions, like patterns of sleep, mood, and emotion processing.

How does it work?

Like a complicated spiderweb, the ECS is made up of different receptors behaving like communication pathways, and they exist in nearly every cell of your body. There are multiple receptor types, the primary ones are CB1 and CB2, with concentration levels higher in the central nervous system for the former and the latter in the GI tract, and peripheral nervous system. Researchers hypothesize about the existence of other receptors. The receptors are triggered when acted upon by an agonist such as a cannabinoid like CBD or THC, or a cannabinoid-like chemical, which we naturally produce. Other plant components like terpenes —organic compounds that influence aroma, flavor, and effects of other cannabinoids — can also interact with and affect the ECS. 

Why is it important?

The discovery of this biological communication system in modern times has had a massive impact on the direction of science and the kinds of questions people are asking about plant-based practices. Though there remains much to learn and understand about the interactions between our human bodies and the plant kingdom, the presence of the endocannabinoid system and its receptors, as well as naturally occuring cannabinoid-chemicals in the brain, indicates a direct correlation.

The ECS is now being studies for its role in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, both linked to inflammation, as well as bowel diseases like Crohn's, and stress-related conditions like depression.

The body has an innate ability to maintain itself, but that can go awry due to injury, stress, inflammation, and disease. Part of your body maintaining itself is adapting to different situations, and cannabis continues to be rigorously researched for its applications in pain, mood, appetite, skin issues, and more, precisely because of what is being learned about the endocannabinoid system.