The Endocannabinoid System

Discovering the existence of the endocannabinoid system, also known as ECS, has completely shifted my perspective on health and wellness, and the integrity of our government's stand on health. This discovery has stunned me. It's as if I have come across some vast and mysterious hanging curtain and decided to tug the cloth to reveal an entirely different world. Why in 2016 and with a bachelor's degree in health sciences am I just now learning of this system? And on a podcast episode, too. It fascinates me, humbles me, yet angers me so deeply. Why is this not taught in school? Something as intimate and true to us as our own bodies' mechanisms? The endocannabinoid system is a physiological network made up of neurotransmitters and receptors and binders. The ECS is found inside our brains, our vertebrae, and in virtually every other cell in our bodies.  

The most abundant chemicals that stimulate the endocannabinoid system are called cannabinoids. The number one source of cannabinoids is Cannabis**. *You are being lied to in mainstream education. Knowledge is power, and sometimes you have to find your own source of power.

Okay so back to the good stuff.


What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannbinoid system (ECS) is the largest homeostatic regulatory system in the body. In other words, it is your body's ability to balance itself at a molecular level. The ECS is made up of three components; neuromodulatory lipids, receptors, and enzymes. These three components can be found in the cell membranes of humans and animals, and are now known to modulate nearly every physiological function of the body, including appetite, mood, memory, pain and sleep. It also mediates the psychoactive effects of Cannabis. The ECS as a whole is essentially responsible for bringing us to our homeostatic state of mind and body; our mental and biological balance. 

The three functional components of the ECS are:

  • Cannabinoid Receptors found on the surface of cells, or cell membranes.
  • Endocannabinoids are cannabinoid-like chemicals produced in the body that stimulate cannabinoid receptors
  • Metabolic enzymes that make up and breakdown endocannabinoids.

Cannabinoid Receptors:

CB1 (Cannabinoid 1) and CB2 (Cannabinoid 2)

Protein structures found on the cell membranes of the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.

CB1 Receptor- psychoactive, found mainly in the central nervous system— effects pain, anxiety, depression, nausea, euphoric “high", appetite, sleep

CB2 Receptor - immunomodulatory, found mainly in the peripheral nervous system— effects immune responses, inflammation, pain


Anadamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol

Endogenous cannabinoids (meaning made within the body) are THC-like ligands that stimulate our CB1 and CB2 receptors.

Anandamide, (AEA) taken from the Sanskrit word for “bliss, joy, delight,” was first scientifically described in 1992 by W. A. Devane and Lumír Hanuš. It has since been coined the "bliss molecule" for its anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects on the body. Anadamide is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that works on the central and peripheral nervous systems, activating the CB1 and CB2 receptors throughout. Anadamide is closely involved with the CB1 receptor, yet stimulates the CB2 receptor in immune responses. 

Some known effects of anandamide:

  • Increases appetite and the pleasure responses of food intake (Munchies, anyone?)
  • Regulation of feeding behavior
  • Vital in the implantation of an embryo (We will definitely explore this more)
  • Plays a role in the neural generation of motivation and pleasure

2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) is an endocannabinoid that activates the CB1 receptor. The affinity of this molecule to cannabinoid receptors was discovered in the mid '90's after anandamide. And unlike anadamide, high levels of 2-AG are found in the central nervous system, with pronounced cannabinoid neuromodulatory effects (aka THC-like effects). An interesting fact to Mother Indica is the presence of 2-AG in breast milk in both animals and humans. 

Metabolic Enzymes:  

FAAH and MAG lipase

Fatty acid amide hydrolase, or FAAH, degrades anandamide, converting it into ethanolamine and arachidonic acid. Interestingly enough, inhibitors of FAAH will lead to elevated anandamide levels and are being pursued for therapeutic use.

Fun fact theory: About 20 percent of the human population cannot handle cannabis. Like at all. This is so important to consider, as everyone's body reacts differently to any given chemical. A theory for this is the small amount of FAAH some people have, which leads to an increase of the presence of anandamide. It's believed that people with lower levels of anandamide are generally happier and healthier individuals. And that these individuals do not take well to cannabis because it will cause too high of levels of anandamide, leading to an increase of anxiety and paranoia.

Monoacylglycerol lipase, or MAG lipase, is a key enzyme in the hydrolysis of 2-AG, meaning it breaks the endocannabinoid down by introducing it to water.

What does the ECS do?

The ECS modulates nearly all of our physiological functions via cell communication. It's main objective is to keep the body in a physiological balance (the epic homeostasis). The ECS is most prominent in the brain and the main activity of the ECS on the brain is to regulate neurotransmission, the chemical signals in the brain from one nerve cell to the other (e.g., acetylcholine, norepinephrine, glutamate, aspartate, etc). 

CB1’s function on the brain is to inhibit the release of neurotransmitters. For example, someone has chronic pain which often comes with an excess of glutamate, a stimulatory neurotransmitter. If he was to consume THC, or able to synthesize more anandamide, the CB1 receptor would then become stimulated and inhibit the excess of glutamate, bringing its levels back to a normal range,  thus relieving pain. 

This system, as you may have guessed, is named after the main psychoactive component of Cannabis indica called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. This component clearly effects the endocannabinoid system, hence the discovery of the system’s existence. While trying to learn the effects of THC on the brain, scientists discovered the brain receptor called CB1 or Cannabinoid 1, which is now known as the main psychoactive receptor in the brain. The effects THC has in making a person feel euphoric, reducing pain, and eliminating nausea are mediated through the CB1 receptor. CB2 or Cannabinoid 2 stimulation can occur in the brain in cases of injury or inflammation, however most CB2 receptors are found throughout the body. 

Cannabinoids: Chemical compounds found in Cannabis that have been shown to mimic the endogenous chemicals endocannabinoids.  These chemicals are not part of the ECS but they are known to enhance the health and functionality of the ECS, which leads us to believe Cannabis is a healthy herb that works on our ECS to help rebalances our bodies causing the ability to heal.

Here is my favorite cannabinoid chart made by Leafly. It helps us visualize the amazing benefits of cannabinoids, and gives us a better idea in the wonders of endocannabinoids.