The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

Human beings (actually, more accurately, fish, reptiles, earthworms, leeches, amphibians, birds, and all mammals including human beings), have a built-in, biological system that can receive, process, and use the medicinal compounds in cannabis. In other words, we are hardwired to use these compounds.

The endogenous cannabinoid system (endocannabinoid system) is an extensive network of neurons, neural pathways, receptors, cells, molecules, and enzymes that work tirelessly throughout your body to maintain a state of homeostasis: a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment. 

The ECS is essential to life’s basic processes by relaying messages that affect how we relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect. So in other words, it’s responsible for two major functions in the body: modulating pleasure, energy, and well-being while restoring bodily balance in the face of external stressors (physical, emotional, and psychological). The total effect of the ECS is to regulate homeostasis and prevent disease and aging.

So how does the ECS fit into the big picture of our body’s complex inner workings? And why is it important to the mitigation of disease?

Let’s explain by looking at one specific bodily system, the immune system. Say your body is faced with a virus or bacterial invader. Your immune system will kick on like a furnace to produce the fever needed to fry the invader. When the job is done, the ECS signals the immune system to cool down and restore homeostasis. But if the feedback loop is out of control, if the immune system overreacts to stress or mistakes its own body for a foreign invader, this is when we develop autoimmune diseases or inflammatory disorders. 

According to Dr. Robert Melamede, a biologist that devoted his career to the study of the endocannabinoid system, you can think of the ECS as the task master that is constantly multitasking, adjusting, and readjusting the complex network of molecular thermostats that control our physiological tempo—and you’ll remember that our bodies like to keep this tempo balanced.

The cannabinoids in hemp and cannabis stimulate the same receptors (CB1 and CB2) that our own natural compounds do, serving as a substitute “retrograde messenger” that mimics just what our bodies do when they try to maintain balance. This gives cannabis a unique synergy with our own bodily processes, and allows it to be a natural and nontoxic medicine. It is also why cannabis-based treatments and supplements must be tailored to the individual, because everybody and every ECS is unique.

Not only that, but the endocannabinoid system is not a lone wolf, meaning it is not a self-contained system. The ECS interacts robustly with other non-cannabinoid systems like the endorphin system, the immune system, and the vanilloid system (responsible for changing pain from acute to chronic). In modulating these other systems, the ECS regulates inflammation, pain, bone health, formation of new nerve cells, fat and sugar processing, mood, energy, brain health, and hormone balance.

Location of CB1 Receptors in the Brain and Physiological Effects

  • Hippocampus: Learning, memory, stress related to memories
  • Hypothalamus: Appetite
  • Cerebellum: Motor coordination
  • Limbic system: Anxiety
  • Cerebral cortex: Pain, higher cognitive function
  • Nucleus accumbens: Reward and addiction
  • Basal ganglia: Sleep and movement
  • Medulla: Nausea and vomiting