The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

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Learn more about your own Endocannabinoid System, how it works inside the body, and how it interacts with cannabinoids like CBD and THC to help improve your overall health and wellbeing.

Endocannabinoid System

What Is The Endocannabinoid System?

The endogenous cannabinoid, or endocannabinoid, system affects just about every aspect of the human experience from memory and pain to stress and reproduction.

The endocannabinoid system really is the true core of the mind-body connection.

As a certified Holistic Cannabis Practitioner, the foundation of my work lies in understanding the human endocannabinoid system and then teaching my students how to understand and nourish their endocannabinoid system for optimal health.

Many of my students ask me why they have never heard of the endocannabinoid system before? When was the endocannabinoid system discovered?

The endocannabinoid system is still a relatively new scientific discovery, being newly discovered in the mid-1990s, although it is difficult to pinpoint the origin.

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the term endocannabinoid system even appeared in any peer-reviewed literature. 

There is still a lot we don’t yet know about the potential role the ECS has on our overall health. Below is an overview of the endocannabinoid system basics, reviewing how this complex system works in the body. 

If you’re looking for a more in-depth review of the endocannabinoid system, please join me for my Cannabis Compass Online Course which has an entire lesson dedicated to Understanding the Endocannabinoid System.

The Endocannabinoid System 101

Every human and mammal has what is known to be an Endocannabinoid System (ECS).

Just like we all have our own immune system and digestive system, we all have our unique own endocannabinoid system that affects our physical bodies. 

The ECS is a network of messengers, cannabinoid receptors, and related enzymes, and it is believed that this complex system has a profound influence over many other systems and physiological processes in the body (1).

The ECS interacts with cannabinoids like CBD and THC through cannabinoid receptors located throughout the entire body. The ECS also interacts with terpenes consumed through cannabis.

The existence of the ECS is broadly thought to help with maintaining homeostasis in the body.

What is Homeostasis?

It is often stated that the endocannabinoid system exists to maintain homeostasis in the body – but what does that actually mean? As defined by the dictionary, homeostasis is:

“The tendency of a system, especially the physiological system of higher animals, to maintain internal stability, owing to the coordinated response of its parts to any situation or stimulus that would tend to disturb its normal condition or function” (2).

This means that cannabis interaction with your Endocannabinoid system helps to maintain internal stability – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The basic functions of the ECS have were summarized in 1998 by Professor Di Marzo as, “relax, eat, sleep, forget and protect”.

What Makes Up the Endocannabinoid System

Physiologically speaking, there is a lot going on inside of the ECS throughout the body. The ECS is made up of three major components: messengers, receptors, and enzymes. Here are the most important ones we know of right now:

  1. ECS Messengers 
    – Cannabinoids
    – Endocannabinoids
  2. ECS Receptors
    – CB1 Receptors
    – CB2 Receptors
  3. Metabolic Enzymes
    – FAAH
    – MAGL
  4. Plus, potentially more secondary components not yet understood.

Below we will review both ECS messengers and ECS receptors and what role they play in our bodies and our health.

Endocannabinoid System Diagram

For my visual learners, here is a simple endocannabinoid system diagram to help you visualize the ECS as a whole.

The Endocannabinoid System

What Are Endocannabinoid Messengers?

Messengers found within the ECS are various cannabinoids which be classified into two different groups: endogenous (endo) cannabinoids and exogenous cannabinoids. 

Endocannabinoids: Endo = From Within (Internal)

There are two primary endogenous cannabinoids (endocannabinoids): anandamide and 2-AG.

Endogenous cannabinoids are cannabinoids that are made within our own bodies. The main endocannabinoids are arachidonoyl ethanolamide (anandamide) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) (3). 

What Is Anandamide? The Bliss Molecule

Discovered in 1992, anandamide, also known as n-arachidonoylethanolamine or AEA, is the first known endogenous cannabinoid that our body makes itself. Named after the Sanskrit term for bliss, anandamide is often referred to as “the bliss molecule” (4).

What is 2-AG?

2-AG, also known as 2-arachidonoylglycerol, is the second discovered endocannabinoid in 1997.

It is believed that 2-AG is produced in response to changes sensed in the body and that 2-AG talks to the inside of cells and tells them what to do in order to maintain homeostasis (5).

Cannabinoids: Exo = From Outside (external)

Exogenous cannabinoids are organic compounds found outside of the human body and within the various plants, like phytocannabinoids found within the cannabis plant. 

Exogenous cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid receptors, triggering a variety of effects. There have been over 110 cannabinoids already identified, including the most popular cannabinoids CBD and THC. When introduced to the body, these cannabinoids interact with the bodies’ own endocannabinoid system by targeting certain cannabinoid receptors. 

The Endocannabinoid System and CBD

CBD, also known as cannabidiol, is one of the most popular cannabinoids on the health and wellness scene today, and for good reason. This non-intoxicating cannabinoid interacts directly with our own endocannabinoid system to produce a wide range of therapeutic effects from an anti-anxiety to an anti-inflammatory. 

CBD works by activating the CB2 cannabinoid receptors and ultimately producing the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of CBD (11). Click here to learn more about how to use CBD oil to nourish your ECS and support your overall health.

What Are Endocannabinoid Receptors?

The Endocannabinoid system contains receptors which receive the information from the ECS messengers or cannabinoids.

There are two primary cannabinoid receptors found within the body – CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors. Surprisingly, it is believed that there are more cannabinoid receptors in the human body and on the brain than any other receptor type (6).

Cannabinoid Receptor Type 1 (CB1)

CB1 receptors are found mostly in the brain and central nervous system, along with other tissues including the heart, lungs, and uterus.

The CB1 receptor “has been recognized as an important therapeutic target for pain, appetite modulation, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and other indications” (7). The CB1 receptor plays a role in the intoxicating effects often seen with THC consumption.

Cannabinoid Receptor Type 2 (CB2)

CB2 receptors are found mostly in the peripheral tissues of the body, including the immune system. It is believed that CB2 receptors are a mediator for suppressing pain & inflammation and have high potential ‘as therapeutic potential in inflammatory, fibrotic, and neurodegenerative diseases’ (8). 

While many tissues in the body can contain both CB1 and CB2 receptors, each is believed to be linked to a different action.

A Third Cannabinoid Receptor?

“A third receptor, TRPV1 (transient receptor potential vanilloid-one) is also considered part of the ECS, and is best known as the site of action of capsaicin, the active ingredient of chile peppers, but is also a target of anandamide and cannabidiol, but not THC” (9).

Everyone’s Endocannabinoid System is Unique

The most interesting thing about CBD and other cannabinoids like THC is that they each affect each individual very differently.  Understanding this helps us to understand that various cannabinoids work differently within our own bodies and that the effect will not be the same for everybody. 

We could all take the same 10mg THC tablet and all have dramatically different responses. Some people may take a small amount of CBD and notice immediate effects, while others will take large doses of CBD over long periods of time and not necessarily notice any big, noticeable changes. 

Beyond the individual’s Endocannabinoid system, it is believed that we all have a unique Endocannabinoid tone based on our unique physiology, meaning that we all have different levels of tolerance and reactivity. 

What is the Endocannabinoid Tone?

Dr. Ethan Russo, a prominent cannabis physician, and the researcher believes that each and every Endocannabinoid system has it’s own ‘tone’, or baseline activity.

This baseline activity is a reflection of the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG and “their production, metabolism, and the relative abundance and state of cannabinoid receptors” (10).

What is an Endocannabinoid System Deficiency?

It is believed that many physiological and outside factors can affect the endocannabinoid tone of a person. When the endocannabinoid tone becomes deficient, an Endocannabinoid deficiency may occur. 

Dr. Russo’s theory is supported by emerging evidence, with the greatest evidence supporting an endocannabinoid system deficiency as being the center of development for migraine, fibromyalgia, IBS, and other autoimmune disorders.

How to Care For Your Endocannabinoid System

Now that you have a better understanding of the Endocannabinoid System and our unique, individual endocannabinoid tone. I hope it is easier to understand why cannabis affects everyone differently and why cannabis requires a highly personalized approach.

If you are looking for a more in-depth look at the endocannabinoid system and the role it plays in optimizing your health, enroll in my Cannabis Compass Online Course. The entire second lesson is dedicated to teaching you about your ECS and how to care for it. 

The lesson will dive into the various mental and physical ailments cannabis use used for, the science behind the ECS, explore the difference between endogenous vs. exogenous cannabinoids, review CB1 & CB2 cannabinoid receptors & discuss other factors that influence the ECS in each individual including prescription medications.

Cannabis Education Class

References/Bibliography

Updated June 3rd, 2020

1– Javier, Francisco, et al. “Endocannabinoid System: Physiology and Pharmacology.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 18 Nov. 2004, academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/40/1/2/282402.

2 – “Define Homeostasis.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/homeostasis.

3 – Franjo, Grotenhermen. “Cannabinoids.” Latest TOC RSS, Bentham Science Publishers, 1 Jan. 1970, www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ben/cdtcnsnd/2005/00000004/00000005/art00005.

4 – Scherma M;Masia P;Satta V;Fratta W;Fadda P;Tanda G; “Brain Activity of Anandamide: A Rewarding Bliss?” Acta Pharmacologica Sinica, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30050084/.

5 – Baggelaar MP;Maccarrone M;van der Stelt M; “2-Arachidonoylglycerol: A Signaling Lipid With Manifold Actions in the Brain.” Progress in Lipid Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29751000/.

6 – “NORML – Working to Reform Marijuana Laws.” The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, norml.org/library/item/introduction-to-the-endocannabinoid-system.

7– A;, Thakur GA;Nikas SP;Makriyannis. “CB1 Cannabinoid Receptor Ligands.” Mini Reviews in Medicinal Chemistry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16026309/.

8 – Li X;Hua T;Vemuri K;Ho JH;Wu Y;“Crystal Structure of the Human Cannabinoid Receptor CB2.” Cell, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30639103/.


9 – Russo, Ethan. “Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System.” PHYTECS, www.phytecs.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/IntroductionECS.pdf.

10 – Russo, Ethan B. “Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Reconsidered: Current Research Supports the Theory in Migraine, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel, and Other Treatment-Resistant Syndromes.” Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., 1 July 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5576607/.

11Atalay, Sinemyiz, et al. “Antioxidative and Anti-Inflammatory Properties of Cannabidiol.” Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland), MDPI, 25 Dec. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7023045/.

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