The Endocannabinoid System And Its Functions

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Categories : Medical cannabis

The Endocannabinoid System And Its Functions

Cannabis and the endocannabinoid system go hand in hand. Enter and find out more about the endocannabinoid system and why it's important.

If we want to understand the effects of cannabis from a physiological perspective, it's imperative to understand what the endocannabinoid system is. The discovery of this chemical messaging network stands as a huge breakthrough in medicine and cannabis science. Here, we briefly go through the functioning of the endocannabinoid system and some history surrounding its discovery.


The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is widely discussed in today’s media due to its connection with cannabis. The endocannabinoid system comprises three fundamental parts, endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors, and metabolic enzymes. Endocannabinoids are produced by our body, with the most studied endocannabinoids being anandamide and 2-AG. These endocannabinoids interact with cannabinoid receptors. When these receptors are “unlocked” by endocannabinoids, they send a chemical message for the body to perform a specific task, like regulate the immune system, for example.

The most studied cannabinoid receptors are CB1, which is mostly located in the brain and central nervous system, and CB2, located in the intestinal tract, skin, and generally throughout the immune system. There’s also another cannabinoid receptor called GPR55, which has not been widely studied yet in comparison with CB1 and CB2. Metabolic enzymes are responsible for breaking down the endocannabinoids when they’re no longer needed.


Cannabis plants produce phytocannabinoids (“phyto” translates to “plant” in Greek), such as THC, CBD, CBN, THCA, and approximately 90 others. These phytocannabinoids act on the cannabinoid receptors because they mimic the structure of our internally produced endocannabinoids. Therefore, many functions that the ECS is responsible for are affected by cannabis consumption. All phytocannabinoids don’t function in the same manner; for example, THC generates psychoactive effects, while CBD doesn’t.


The endocannabinoid system helps regulate sleep, mood, reproduction, motor control, temperature, immune system, pain, memory, and other processes. The ECS is generally portrayed by the media as the “regulatory system” that corrects irregularities when something is not in the homeostatic “sweet spot”. Many patients use cannabis to help regulate and manipulate these functions. Scientists are making new discoveries on a regular basis regarding how cannabis affects the ECS.

The Endocannabinoid System And Its Functions


The endocannabinoid system is a relatively new discovery, even though cannabis has been around for thousands of years. Let's go back in time when THC was first isolated from the cannabis plant. In 1964, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and Dr. Yehiel Gaoni were the pioneers who extracted THC from the cannabis plant at the Hebrew University.

This was a huge breakthrough because scientists could now study the effects of the phytocannabinoid that is mainly responsible for the psychoactive effects. A chain of events stemming from this led Dr. William Devane and Dr. Lumir Hanus to discover the endocannabinoid system in the early ‘90s. Now, scientists are looking at how exactly cannabis consumption affects the functioning of the ECS. In 2013, a big story broke out about Charlotte Figi who suffered from hundreds of seizures a week resulting from a rare form of epilepsy known as Dravet syndrome. After consuming CBD, her seizures were reduced to around 1 per week. This story led to more scientists looking into CBD’s effects on the ECS in particular.


The ECS is a complex physiological system with a wide array of functions. Given that it was only discovered around 25 years ago, we still have a long way to go before truly understanding the full potential cannabis has on the ECS.