function of the endocannabinoid system

By Dr. Barry Morrison

If you’ve been studying the subject of cannabis science for as long as I have, then you would know the Endocannabinoid System is vital to life…but what is its function?

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) refers to a complex cell-signaling system functioning as a collection of cell receptors and corresponding molecules. You can think of these cell receptors as little locks on the surface of your cells. The keys to these locks are chemical molecules called agonists. Each time an agonist binds to a cell it relays a message, giving your cell specific direction on what action to perform.

The ECS wasn’t identified until the early 1990s by Israeli researchers exploring Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a well-known cannabis compound referred to as a cannabinoid. Cannabinoids are the primary plant derived agonist compounds, that unlock the receptors, which are known as phyto-cannabinoids and can be found within the cannabis plant.


Understanding the ECS

Experts are still trying to fully understand the ECS. But what we do know is that it plays role in regulating a range of functions and processes, including:

  • sleep
  • mood
  • appetite
  • memory
  • reproduction and fertility
  • hormonal activity

Believe it or not the ECS exists and is active within your body right now even if you don’t use cannabis. How? …well pay attention, as your about to find out.


How does it work?

The ECS involves three core components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.

  • Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids, also called endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules made by your body. That’s right, I did say they are created by your body! They’re similar to the plant derived cannabinoids, however your body actually manufactures them. Hence, this is why our body responds so well to both the endo and phyto cannabinoids as they are recognized as natural to the body enhancing the endocannabinoid system.

Experts have identified two key endocannabinoids so far:

  • anandamide (AEA)
  • 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG)

These two endocannabinoids are essential as they help keep internal body functions running smoothly through our endocannabinoid system. Your body will produce them as needed, making it rather difficult to determine what typical levels are for each individual.

  • Endocannabinoid Receptors

These receptors are found throughout your body with endocannabinoids binding to them signaling the body that the ECS needs to take some type of action.

There are two main endocannabinoid receptors:

  • CB1 receptors, which are mostly found in the central nervous system
  • CB2 receptors, which are found primarily in your peripheral nervous system, especially within the immune cells

Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor. The effects that result depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to.

For example, endocannabinoids might target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve have been shown to relieve pain. Others might bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body’s experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders.

  • Enzymes

Enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their function.

There are two main enzymes responsible for this:


What are the endocannabinoid functions?

The ECS is complicated, and experts are still investigating just exactly how it works along with mapping all of its potential functions.

The Trusted Resource of  the US National Library of Medicine has linked the ECS to the following processes:

  • appetite and digestion
  • metabolism
  • chronic pain
  • inflammation and other immune system responses
  • mood
  • learning and memory
  • motor control
  • sleep
  • cardiovascular system function
  • muscle formation
  • bone remodeling and growth
  • liver function
  • reproductive system function
  • stress
  • skin and nerve function

The ultimate function of this system is homeostasis, which refers to stability of your internal environment despite the fluctuation of the external environment. For example, if an outside force, such as pain from an injury, a psychological trauma, or a fever, throws off your body’s homeostasis, your ECS automatically engages to help your body return to its ideal functional capacity.

Today, experts believe that maintaining homeostasis if the primary role of the ECS.


THC’s interaction with the ECS

As most of us are aware, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the main cannabinoids found in cannabis. Mater of fact it’s the compound that gets you “high.”

Upon entering the body, THC interacts with your ECS by binding to receptors, in the same fashion as it does with the endocannabinoids. It possesses the unique ability to bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors.

This give THC the ability to effect on both the body and mind with some being more desirable than others. For example, THC may assist the body in reducing pain and stimulate your appetite. The downside is that it can also cause paranoia and anxiety in some cases with higher concentrations.

Experts are currently looking into ways to produce synthetic THC cannabinoids that interact with the ECS in only beneficial ways however as with most things created by man it is subpar to that produced within nature.


CBD’s interaction with the Endocannabinoid System

The other major cannabinoid found in cannabis is cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t make you “high” and typically doesn’t cause any negative effects.

Experts aren’t completely sure how CBD interacts with the ECS. But they do know that it doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors directly the same way THC does.

Instead, it’s thought to work indirectly by preventing endocannabinoids from being broken down. This allows the beneficial effects of the endocannabinoids to have more of an impact upon the body’s physiology. Others believe that CBD binds to a receptor that hasn’t been discovered yet.

While the details of how it works are still being investigated, research suggests that CBD can assist with pain, nausea, and other symptoms associated with multiple conditions. One of the greatest CBD attributes I have noticed with my patients is it’s anti-inflammatory properties which ultimately leads to in many cases a reduction in pain.


What is Endocannabinoid System Deficiency?

Some experts believe in a theory known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). This theory suggests that low endocannabinoid levels in your body or ECS dysfunction can contribute to the development of certain conditions.

2016 article from aTrusted Source reviewing over 10 years of research on the subject suggests the theory could explain why some people develop migrainefibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment-resistant syndromes. It is thought that this theory may diminish the stigma of a psychosomatic label that many have placed upon these elusive conditions.

None of these conditions have a clear underlying cause and are also often resistant to treatment and sometimes occur in conjunction with one another.

Therefore, if CECD does play any kind of role in these conditions, targeting the ECS, endocannabinoid production or phytocannabinoid intake could be the missing link to treatment of these and many other conditions.


Endocannabinoid System Conclusion

The ECS plays a major role in assisting your body in maintaining homeostasis. Keep in mind this is a physiologic system that was only recently discovered in the 1990’s and its research is still in its infancy. As research and studies are currently being conducted, I’m sure there is much to be learned about this essential body function.

As experts develop a better understanding of the ECS, it could eventually hold the key to treating many health challenges that currently have little to no potential of recovery with today’s traditional healthcare.



Activation of cannabinoid CB1 receptor contributes to suppression of spinal nociceptive transmission and inhibition of mechanical hypersensitivity by Aβ-fiber stimulation


The CB2 receptor and its role as a regulator of inflammation