Intro to the Endocannabinoid System

It wasn’t until the 1990’s that scientists discovered the physiological system that allows us to feel effects from cannabis. This system, aptly named The Endogenous Cannabinoid Receptor System or ECS for short, is a complex biological system comprised of endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors and various enzymatic factors. The ultimate goal of the ECS is to achieve homeostasis aka balance. 

Our bodies are incredibly complex machines with many constantly moving parts. Like any machine in interminable motion, problems are guaranteed to occur. When our bodies encounter problems, we enter into disease states. There are mechanisms at play, such as the immune system, to help us move through disease states as quickly as possible. The ECS is a system that not only assists in recovery but also helps to prevent disease states from ever occurring. Think of it like this: when our bodies enter disease states it is analogous to the tin man becoming rusty. In this Wizard of OZ analogy, the ECS is the oil that not only prevents the tin man from ever becoming rusty but also helps the tin man to recover from his rusty state. The ECS is the lubricant that keeps our complex bodies running smoothly. 

Research scientists first uncovered this hidden homeostatic highway when isolating the receptors that allow for phytocannabinoid interaction. Since that first discovery, scientists have identified at least twelve cannabinoid receptors, two endogenous cannabinoids and many other receptor families and enzymatic factors at play in the ECS. 

While scientists have currently identified twelve cannabinoid receptors, we only know enough scientific information to discuss two of them: CB1 and CB2 receptors. 

  • CB1 receptors are most densely populated in the brain, but can also be found scattered all over our bodies. CB1 receptors mediate a variety of physiological responses, including the “high” we feel from cannabis. THC effectively binds to the CB1 receptors in our brain to facilitate the psychotropic experience. 
  • CB2 receptors are most densely populated on immune cells, but can also be found in our brain stem and various other parts of our bodies. CB2 receptors are largely responsible for immune modulation and can help to strengthen our bodies and prevent disease. Neither THC or CBD effectively bind to the CB2 receptors, however b-caryophyllene, a common terpene in cannabis, can bind to these receptors and initiate effects!

Our bodies also produce our own cannabinoids aka endocannabinoids. These compounds work in similar ways to phytocannabinoids, however they are designed by the body so they engage the cannabinoid receptors more effectively. Two of the most prominent endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-AG. 

  • Anandamide – engages CB1 receptors at the main binding site to facilitate a variety of physiological effects including mood stabilization, pain and inflammatory relief.
  • 2-AG – engages both CB1 and CB2 receptors to initiate a variety of medicinal pathways including immune modulation, pain and inflammatory relief

Every individual has a unique ECS. We refer to this as someone’s ECS tone. Your unique ECS tone describes your various endocannabinoid receptor densities and endocannabinoid concentrations. It has been theorized that most humans are in a state of diminished ECS tone. A diminished ECS tone may be due to chronic stress, poor nutrition and general lack of emotional, mental and physical care. Researchers have even theorized a syndrome called Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome (CECD) that occurs due to a diminished ECS tone. CECD may even be part of the root cause of serious ailments such as cancers and seizure disorders. 

How do we strengthen our ECS tone? By supplementing with cannabis! Cannabis compounds not only bind to cannabinoid receptors to initiate signaling pathways, but also increase endocannabinoid concentrations. Phytocannabinoids help to prevent the degradation of endocannabinoids by inhibiting the carrier proteins from delivering the endocannabinoids to their destruction. By this mechanism of action, cannabis helps to support the long term improvement of our ECS tone! Improved ECS tone leads to healthier and happier states of being. 

There is still so much to uncover about our Endocannabinoid Receptor System. We are just at the beginning of understanding the therapeutic potential of cannabis and the ECS. Further discoveries will allow us to develop smarter strategies for disease prevention and intervention.