Endocannabinoid System [ECS] What it is and Why Does it Matter?

Cannabinoids represent a recent discovery made by scientists which took by storm the dietary supplement market. Two of the most important cannabinoids found are THC and CBD. Studies conducted so far succeeded in surprising the doctors and the scientists, but the list of benefits and side effects is still opened. Because the popularity of cannabinoids grew so fast many manufacturers of dietary supplements rushed to create products based on these substances, even though The Food and Drug Association didn’t include them on the list of official supplements, due to the lack of scientific studies. Before buying them, it is important to learn how they influence your body.((https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317221.php))

Unlike the circulatory system, the nervous system or the immune system in our bodies which were studied since the beginning of medicine, the endocannabinoid system has a relatively short history. It was only in 1964 when Israeli researchers discovered in cannabis plants the active substances with therapeutically properties, later known as cannabinoids. That was the moment when THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) made an entrance into the scientific community. It took more than 20 years after this event for researchers to identify the endocannabinoid system or endogenous cannabinoid system present in the human body and all the other vertebrates.

Just because it was discovered only a few decades ago, doesn’t mean that the endocannabinoid system is less important than the other we already know about. It seems like the human body can naturally produce endocannabinoid molecules which play a significant role in the proper functioning of the nervous and immune system. Endocannabinoids are similar to cannabinoids also known as phytocannabinoids, which are found in the cannabis plant. Because they are so similar to cannabinoids, they can perfectly fit within the special receptors of the EC system found throughout the body and boost its activity to improve the general health and balance. This system has an extensive network of dedicated receptors in various parts of the body, like the brain, immune system, nervous system, connective tissues, glands and other organs. Even if these receptors play the different role, they all aim to support the body’s ability to achieve homeostasis or balance.

Cannabis has been used for centuries for various purposes such as medical, spiritual or recreational, but only in the past decade’s scientists became intrigued by the process which marijuana generates in our bodies. Some people consume cannabis to relieve pain, while other just want to feel relaxed. The effects marijuana has on users wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have a biological system capable of interacting with the compounds of the plant and generate a high feeling or therapeutic effects. One of the most important cannabinoids discovered so far is THC, and it happens for it to have a very similar shape to a compound which is naturally produced by the human body which is why it can infiltrate into the EC system and generate psychoactive effects. The endocannabinoid system does much more than just to get us euphoric; it works for maintaining the well-being and the balance for certain key aspects of the general health.

To better understand what endocannabinoid system is and what it actually does, here is some detailed information which aims to help you decide what products you should buy.

What is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

The endogenous cannabinoid system, the endocannabinoid system or the EC system are names which refer to the same network of cell receptors and molecules. Endo is translated within, while cannabinoid relates to a chemical substance that makes cannabinoid receptors react. To get a picture of how it works to try to imagine that the receptors are little locks placed on the surface of the cells and the small molecules known as agonists act like the key to these locks. When an agonist gets attached to a receptor, it sent a message which is transmitted in a particular direction.((http://norml.org/library/item/introduction-to-the-endocannabinoid-system))

The endocannabinoid system has two primary receptors simply named Cannabinoid Receptor 1 or CB 1 and Cannabinoid Receptor 2 or CB 2. They both are known under the generic name of anandamide. A funny piece of information is that without THC it might have taken longer for scientists to discover the fact that such a system is part of our biology. Once the finding was made public, it has generated a rush for the other scientists to find out how does the THC manage to replace and influence the chemical process that occurs in our bodies. The name anandamide comes from Sanskrit and means bliss. The name was considered fit by the researchers because they needed more than 20 years to discover these molecules.((https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2241751/))


The receptors are not the only components of the ES system. In order to be able to create complex processes which have beneficial effects on the body, this system requires the contribution of metabolic enzymes also called fatty acids, monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL) and amide hydrolase (FAAH) so it will break down the cannabinoids after they have been used. CB 1 receptors are mostly placed in the nervous system, glands, and other organs, while CB 2 receptors mainly exist in the tissues part of the immune system, in the gastrointestinal tract. There are many tissues and organs which contain both receptors, and they adapt their role to specific actions on the site. Many scientists agree that the endocannabinoid system has more cells with receptor role than any other system in the human body.

To have an idea about how the EC system works there are a few things to learn about a process called homeostasis. This is a fundamental concept in biology, and it can be compared to a fairy tale to make it easier to understand. Usually, in these stories, the truth is halfway between two extremes. Homeostasis is a naturally occurring process in our bodies with the purpose of maintaining its activity within strict limits. Extreme events like too high or too low values of temperature, blood sugar, blood pressure create an unbalance which can trigger a chain reaction of bad events for the health. Our cells require proper conditions in order to function at optimum parameters and that is why the evolution of human kind ensured the right mechanism to maintain homeostasis.

Understanding all processes created and managed by the EC system kept scientists busy for decades and they still need more time. It is not an easy task to learn about all the physiological functions the endocannabinoid system performs, but it is important to understand that we are genetically equipped to interact with chemical compounds found in cannabis. It is no surprise that cannabis can generate unpredictable effects to users, so there is no guarantee that willingly ingesting cannabinoids will bring the desired results.

Key elements of the endocannabinoid system

The body needs to produce on its own the right amount of endocannabinoids in order to function properly. That is why scientists considered it was important to find out where do they come from. The conclusion is somehow surprising. Endocannabinoids come from the diet. In order to produce endocannabinoids, the body requires fatty acids, especially Omega 3. Foods containing salmon o sardines are a good way of ensuring easy to use fatty acids. Another great source of high-quality fatty acids is hemp seeds.

The key components of endocannabinoid system have evolved through time, and now they play a crucial role in maintaining homeostasis, that is why it is found in all types of vertebrates. Usually, the receptors are associated with the EC system, but there are other components just as important. The EC system is made of:

Receptor Cells

The receptors of EC system are placed on the surface of the cells, and they receive the messages from the outside and send it inside the cell in order to generate a response and start an action. The two most important receptors of the endocannabinoid system are CB 1 and CB 2. Since the EC system scientists conducted many studies to find out what is the role of these receptors and the conclusions are quite interesting. They are not the only ones, but they were the first discovered and best studied so far. CB 1receptors are most common in the brain, while the CB 2 receptor are placed in the nervous and immune system. Both receptors are found in different organs all over the body. In the case of overdosing on cannabis, the CB 1 receptors prevent the body from collapsing because they are not present in crucial regions responsible for vital functions like the breathing of heart beat. This is the reason why overdosing only on cannabis never happened and it seems impossible to ever will.((https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16570100))

Molecules which Activate the Receptors

The molecules within the cell membranes are synthesized whenever needed by the endocannabinoid system in order to activate the receptors and send the message forward. In other words, these fatty like molecules are made only at the moment they are needed and not stored up for later use.

The Metabolic Enzymes with Role of Breaking Down Used Endocannabinoids

The endocannabinoid system has one more element which is responsible for getting rid of the residue resulted from depreciated endocannabinoids. The two enzymes in charge with this job are FAAH and MAGL, each one targeting a different type of cannabinoids. These enzymes make sure than endocannabinoids are used exactly at the moment they are needed and for as long as they are needed. This system is what makes the difference between endocannabinoids and classical hormones or neurotransmitter which remain in the system for minutes after no longer being used or stored for future uses.

endocannabinoid-system-diagram-450x426The psychoactive and medical effects of cannabinoids are explained through the activity of the endocannabinoid system. For example, the infamous THC can get you high because it gets attached to the CB 1 receptors found in the brain and generate hallucinations. The fact that one is not constantly high is not a surprise and it has a logical explanation. THC is a cannabinoid from another source that endocannabinoids so there is a different interaction of the CB 1 with each of the two.  Then there are the enzymes which do not waste time in doing their job. Unfortunately, they can’t dispose of THC just as quickly. Cannabidiol is another cannabinoid frequently used which stops FAAH from breaking down cannabinoids, and the result seems to have a positive influence on the anxiety symptoms and balance the mood.

Also let’s remember that usually, cannabinoids interact with many receptors, not just one. Still, cannabinoids from plants target various receptors in order to obtain the effects, not just those stimulated by the endocannabinoids.((http://jem.rupress.org/content/209/6/1121))

How does the endocannabinoid system work?

The receptors of the endocannabinoid system are found all over the body making them useful for various functions, but some areas contain a higher number of receptors. The diversity of the cell receptors is a clue for the important role this system plays on a daily basis for the body functions.((http://norml.org/library/item/introduction-to-the-endocannabinoid-system))

The key elements which create the EC system work together to keep under control the following body functions:

Metabolism and energy balance

The EC system can control essential metabolic functions like the gastrointestinal tract, the endocrine pancreas, the skeletal muscles, even the insulin sensitivity levels. As a result of this homeostasis, the endocannabinoid system plays a major role in health problems like diabetes, obesity, atherosclerosis, and heart.


Endocannabinoids have a double role in the immune system as immunomodulators and neuromodulators. This way the system acts to protect and improve symptoms like inflammation, muscle spasm and other symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Manage multiple sclerosis symptoms

Since the ancient time’s cannabis was used to create treatments for reducing the severity of symptoms like pain and tremors caused by multiple sclerosis. Modern day researchers confirmed these properties of cannabinoids which can attach themselves to the receptors of the EC system and act as anti-inflammatory agents.


Higher than normal levels of endocannabinoids can influence the nervous system to relax the body and mind so much that it creates a sleep effect. Cannabis is world renowned for its recreational properties, and that is because THC plays a role in improving sleep quality and reducing the energy level. Endocannabinoids are the active substances which tell the body when to start and when to finish certain processes.


One of the effects of cannabis reported by multiple users is the impairment of short-term memory, and studies suggest that the EC system has something to do with it. It is believed that high doses of cannabinoids taken over a determined period can stimulate neuronal growth and as a result, the memory is improved; one can remember names and dates faster and even stay focused for longer.((https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21104385))


A wide range of medical studies indicates that endocannabinoids influence the eating behavior. Smoking cannabis creates a sensation of hunger because THC uses CB 1 receptors in the brain in order to increase appetite. Cannabinoids could become a useful substitute for classic treatment of various weight related disorders.((https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24933167))

Stress response

The body reacts to constant stress by secreting certain chemical compounds which could prove harmful if the stress persists. Cannabinoids interact with the receptors of EC system placed in the brain and restore the chemical balance so that the stress level is reduced.

Autonomic nervous system

A large number of the EC receptors found in the nervous system intrigued the scientists to find out more about the role cannabinoids play here. The results of the studies were similar and they suggest that endocannabinoids work to regulate the intestinal mobility, including the stimulation of the muscle which controls reproductive, urinary and digestive systems.((http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2036.2005.02648.x/pdf))

Female reproduction

Cannabinoids are also secreted in the uterus, and the development of an embryo expresses a response which is necessary for controlling the timing of uterine receptivity in the case of embryonic implantation. Some studies indicate an increased risk of miscarriage when the endocannabinoids levels are too high or too low. Also, it is believed by the scientists that ingesting high amounts of cannabinoids, for example, by smoking cannabis can decrease the possibility of pregnancy. But if the level of cannabinoids is too low the chances of pregnancy increase exponential.((https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4918871/))


It seems like endocannabinoids and dopamine play a major role in keeping the body temperature within proper limits. As usually extreme events in the body can disrupt the hemostasis, and too high or too low temperatures are no exception. Thermoregulation is activated by a chemical substance similar to endocannabinoids and is also found in chili peppers and which stimulates a channel to sensory neuron terminals.


Inflammation is the normal and natural reaction of the immune system in case of physical damage or germ infection. The purpose of this process is to kill the pathogen agents and protect the armed tissue by redirecting immune cells to fight the fluid produced by the inflammation and return things to normal. If inflammation expands and persists, great harm can be done. If the inflammation becomes a chronic affection is a sign that the auto-immune system doesn’t work properly anymore and the inflammatory reaction last longer than it should, which indicates chronic inflammation, or affects the healthy cells and destroys them, which is a clue for auto-immune disorders. Studies revealed that endocannabinoids could limit the inflammation and reduce it.((http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0014488610001160))

Brain Cell Signal Control

Brain cells, known as neurons, communicate with each other through the electrochemical signal. For one neuron to decide whether it should pass the impulse further, it must listen to what its partners are saying. But too many signals at once could overload the neurons, and that is when endocannabinoids kick in. To understand better the process try to imagine a scene in which one neuron has to listen to other two, and one of them is super active and sends too many messages. If it gets to this, the listening neuron starts to produce endocannabinoids at the exact connection with the hyperactive neuron which will travel to the CB 1 receptors of the loud neuron and give him the instructions to calm down. This process is another example of homeostasis.

This situation proves that endocannabinoids also travel backward process known as retrograde signals. In most cases, the information goes only in one direction from sender to receiver neuron. Endocannabinoids play a significant role in allowing the receiver to control some of the signals it can process by creating retrograde signals to the overactive neurons. This process doesn’t apply only to the brain. All the other organs in the body need a way to maintain homeostasis and regulation of communication between different types of cells is a crucial function.


Palmitoylethanolamide is one of the most researched cannabinoids related to pain. This is actually a fatty amine similar to cannabinoids, only saturated. Initially, it was believed that it could bind CB 1 and CB 2 receptors, but later this substance was evaluated for its analgesic potential for a variety of pain factors. The results indicate that is substance is both safe and efficient. This finding suggests that endocannabinoids and similar fatty amines could become a therapeutic alternative to traditional analgesics. Endocannabinoids are also often used as placebo in tests which evaluate analgesia response.((https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2770047/))

Generating synaptic depression

Cannabinoids seem to have an inhibiting effect on the receptors which stimulate the neurotransmission of various forms of depression. Studies found out that CB 1 receptors act as a mediator for the short-term retrograde depression and this means that the brain has its own direct way of limiting the production of cannabinoids in order to inhibit neuronal activity over different time scales according to its needs.


EC system can facilitate the neurogenesis of brain cells in adults. This process has an impact on the cognitive functions. If the brain cells are regenerated, one can focus better and for longer periods of time. All the other mental functions like memory and clear thinking are improved. Many studies revealed that cannabinoids could be used as a dietary supplement for boosting brain’s activity.

Social behavior and anxiety

For a long time, the constant consumption of cannabinoids has been associated with rebel and anti-social behavior, mainly due to the THC effects on the body. The psychoactive influence of cannabinoids on the brain makes some people change behavior. Actually, cannabinoids have a positive impact on the mind by generating a recreational effect. If the brain is less stressed the symptoms of anxiety become less severe and one can resume the daily social activity.((https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3267552/))

This is just a short presentation of the endocannabinoid system, and each year scientists exhibit more findings related to its activity. Because this system was discovered the interest in cannabinoids and their sources exploded in the past decades. The talks about cannabis medicinal properties are no longer simple stories; there is actual scientific evidence to support the medical implications.((http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(06)01362-3/fulltext))

Final Thoughts

After centuries of medical studies of the human body, scientists discovered a new system which they knew nothing about. For the past decades, medical and scientific communities declared themselves intrigued by the way it works and the functions it performs. Researches revealed that there are two different types of cannabinoids which interact with this system. There are the cannabinoids produced by the human body, known as endocannabinoids and the cannabinoids which originate from plants. Our bodies are genetically designed to create and process the endocannabinoids to perform certain functions. If under certain circumstances the body doesn’t generate enough endocannabinoids there is the possibility to supplement with similar chemical compounds obtained from various types of hemp and cannabis.((http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/178/2/101.full))

The endocannabinoid system has three essential pieces which work together in order to start and complete various tasks. The primary mission of the EC system is maintaining the homeostasis at various levels in the body. It is composed of receptors, molecules which activate and the enzymes which break them down when they become no longer useful. Because this network plays a crucial role in keeping the entire body in balance the duties are specifically divided between elements.The fatty molecules wake up the receptors of the EC system to pick up the information sent by cannabinoids and start an action according to the request. The enzymes have the task of cleaning up the system and remove all endocannabinoids when they are no longer necessary. This system has many receptors placed all over the body, but only two are considered very important: CB 1 and CB 2. They were first discovered, and so there are most studies focused on their role. CB 1 receptors are mostly found in the brain, and CB 2 receptors are more common in the immune and nervous system. This doesn’t mean that these receptors can’t be located in various other organs and tissues throughout the body. In exceptional cases, only one of them is activated. Usually, cannabinoids reach both receptors and ask the do perform multiple tasks.

The fatty molecules wake up the receptors of the EC system to pick up the information sent by cannabinoids and start an action according to the request. The enzymes have the task of cleaning up the system and remove all endocannabinoids when they are no longer necessary. This system has many receptors placed all over the body, but only two are considered very important: CB 1 and CB 2. They were first discovered, and so there are most studies focused on their role. CB 1 receptors are mostly found in the brain, and CB 2 receptors are more common in the immune and nervous system. This doesn’t mean that these receptors can’t be located in various other organs and tissues throughout the body. In exceptional cases, only one of them is activated. Usually, cannabinoids reach both receptors and ask the do perform multiple tasks.

Just because of this system in less famous than the rest of our bodies is doesn’t mean it is less important. It seems that all vertebrates, not only humans have such a network for processing cannabinoids. Some of the most important functions of the body appear to be managed by the endocannabinoid system. It is believed that EC system watches over sleep quality, optimum mental functions, mood swings, depression and anxiety, pain caused by neurological disorders or inflammation, appetite regulation and weight management, thermoregulation, immunity and many other.

If the body isn’t able to produce on its own all the endocannabinoids it needs in order to manage all the functions, one can include in the daily routine cannabinoids obtained from plants. CBD and THC are two of the most famous cannabinoids derived from industrial hemp and cannabis, and they have a similar structure like the naturally produced endocannabinoids so they can easily replace them. THC is the substance responsible for the psychoactive effect of cannabis while CBD doesn’t cause any hallucinations. Other than that, the two cannabinoids seem to be bringing similar benefits for the general health.

Be careful what kind of cannabinoids-based supplements you choose because the popularity of these substances took off in the past years and many manufacturers present on the market more or less effective products and some of them are even dangerous for health being made for profit purposes only. Try only to buy certified products created in FDA approved labs. Keep in mind that up to this point the FDA hasn’t approved cannabinoids as dietary supplements yet due to their short time of medical study and a relatively short list of conclusions. Cannabinoids obtained from plants seem to bring many health benefits, but there are many ongoing studies which try to found out more about how they work and what is the exact relation to our body.