What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

It seems like everyone is talking about cannabidiol (CBD). It’s touted as treating everything from relatively benign conditions such as acne and muscle pain, to more debilitating diseases such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and even cancer.

But for many people, this new workhorse of the nutraceutical industry seems a bit too good to be true. Can CBD really deliver everything it promises?

The answer may be yes, but it’s complicated. And the reason for this is the way in which plant-based cannabinoids such as CBD interact with what is known as the endocannabinoid system.

Continue reading to learn more about what the endocannabinoid system is, what it does, and how CBD can work in unison with the ECS to not only keep you healthy and well, but also to potentially combat more serious conditions without the harmful side effects often associated with pharmaceuticals.

The Endocannabinoid System

We all have a biological system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Its main job is to control, regulate and moderate a wide variety of biological systems within the body. These range from primary physiological mechanisms such as appetite and digestion, to higher-order cognitive functions such as mood, memory and stress responses.

Being involved with almost every biological system within the body, the endocannabinoid system has the ability to regulate and maintain a perpetual “Goldilocks zone” within the body—a state of homeostasis that maintains the ideal sets of conditions necessary for the body to stay healthy and perform at its best.

To understand how the endocannabinoid system does this, we first need to look at the basics of what it’s made up of. The three most fundamental components are endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors and cannabinoid-specific metabolic enzymes.


To date, five different endocannabinoids have been identified. These are:

  1. anandamide
  2. 2-arachidonoylglycerop
  3. O-arachidonoyl ethanolamine
  4. 2-arachidonyl glyceryl
  5. N-arachidonoyl dopamine

Endocannabinoids are types of cannabinoids our bodies make on demand and on location that are responsible for activating and regulating ECS functioning. These endocannabinoids are also a very special type of neurotransmitter that have the ability to perform retrograde signaling that regulates chemical neurotransmission.

If you are experiencing pain, for example, endocannabinoids have the ability to send signals up that neural pathway and against the downward flow of neurotransmitter signals. This in effect tells the cells to stop producing the neurotransmitters that cause a pain signal, in turn dimming the pain signal, and resulting in you not feeling the sensation of pain anymore.

Cannabinoid Receptors

The ECS is made up from a remarkably complex network of cannabinoid receptors (CBr’s) that function as a kind of lock-and-key system that endocannabinoids bind to in order to send neurochemical signals between different cells in the body. To date, two types have been identified, each interacting with different physiological systems. These are CB-1 and CB-2 receptors.

CB-1 Receptors

CB-1 Receptors are primarily responsible for modulating the release of neurotransmitters and preventing excessive or inadequate amounts of neuron activity. They also work to reduce pain and inflammation, relieve feelings of anxiety, aggression and short-term depression, as well as reducing seizure activity and spasticity in people with epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. CB-1 receptors are mostly located in the brain and central nervous system, but can also be found in the lungs, gastrointestinal tract, liver and kidneys, which involve regulating appetite, digestion and motor control.

CB-2 Receptors

CB-2 receptors are predominantly found within the immune system, but they are also present in the spleen, tonsils, thymus gland and even the retinal cells of the eye. Scientist theorize that due to their location, these receptors are involved with immune function and response, cell death, cell migration during tissue development as well as the modulation of intestinal inflammatory responses (such as found in Chrohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel diseases and ulcerative colitis).

Metabolic Enzymes

The two major enzymes are fatty acid amide hydrolase, and monoacylglycerol lipase. These are what ensures that the endocannabinoids are broken down once they’ve done their job. Unlike other hormones and neurochemicals, endocannabinoids do not remain and cannot be stored for later use—a characteristic that can have both positive and negative consequences (more on that later).

CBD and the Endocannabinoid System

Where things start getting interesting is when you start looking at how the ECS, endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids (the cannabinoids found in plants) work together.

Unfortunately, as with most other biological systems, things can go wrong. Because, as mentioned before, endocannabinoids do not stay around and cannot be stored, it can happen that at some point, not enough endocannabinoids are available to go around.

When this happens, the body is unable to maintain a healthy internal balance (or state of homeostasis), which can cause a condition known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome. The more scientists study the ECS, the more it is believed that such a deficiency may be the actual root cause of many health conditions, which makes the ECS a great target site for therapeutic interventions.

If there is a shortage of something, putting more of that back will help restore balance. Makes sense, right? And this is exactly what studies are showing when it comes to endocannabinoid deficiencies and disease.

Scientists found that, although phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids are chemically different, the way in which they interact with the ECS are very similar. And when a phytocannabinoid such as CBD is put back into the body, it helps to kickstart the ECS and restore a state of homeostasis and optimal physiological functioning.

Scientists are still in the early stages of ECS, CBD and endocannabinoid deficiency research. But, as more information is becoming available, an increasing number of people are turning to CBD as a viable and effective treatment option for a range of symptoms and conditions. Others use CBD as a preventative supplement that helps to keep them and their bodies happy and healthy.

However, regardless of the countless success stories, it is important to remember that we are all different, and what works for one person might not work for another. But by gaining a deeper understanding of how the ECS may help to maintain homeostasis and how phytocannabinoids like CBD may help it to promote overall health and wellness, it does begin to explain why so many people report relief from such a wide variety of symptoms, conditions and illnesses.

Lieze Boshoff

Lieze Boshoff (B.Psych, M.Sc (HCN)), is the founder of LBC3 Marketing, a leading content marketing and copywriting consultancy. Lieze has been working exclusively in the cannabis industry for three years, helping her clients get strategic about their content, marketing and copywriting goals. Lieze’s interest in medical cannabis and CBD got sparked when her mother sought a wholistic approach to treating her cancer. Seeing how effective this strategy was, but also the stigma surrounding it, Lieze set out to educate people about medical cannabis and CBD through her marketing and consulting work.

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