Okay, so we’ve all heard these words floating around cannabis articles and research…endocannabinoid system or ECS. Sounds like some sort of alien spacecraft, huh? The good news is that it’s nothing that ominous or foreign to us. In the most basic explanation, it’s a system within our bodies that interacts with cannabinoids but, that doesn’t begin to explain all the awesome sauce that is the ECS. This complex system is responsible for so much more than we ever thought possible and poses a smorgasbord of research opportunities to help us understand many diseases and how cannabis acts as a medicine. So, here is your personal guide to understanding the endocannabinoid system.

The Endocannabinoid System

The ECS is made up of receptors and corresponding agonists known as endocannabinoids (1)(“endo” meaning within, cannabinoids made within our own bodies). Picture it like this. Your cells can do many amazing things, but they have to be directed what to do and where to go by various chemicals in our bodies. In order to determine which action to take, they need something to decode the message. Think of these like codes and decoders. The receptors are the codes which direct the cell and they can only be decoded by specific chemicals called agonists. Within the ECS, there are two primary receptors. The first is Cannabinoid Receptor…wait for it…1 or CB1 and the second is….you guessed it!….Cannabinoid Receptor 2 or CBD2. Now, CB1 receptors are more prevalent in the central nervous system and CB2 receptors are more prevalent in immune cells, the gastrointestinal tract, and the peripheral nervous system.

There are also two primary endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG)

Anandamide influences appetite, pleasure and reward signals, pain regulation, sleep patterns, and hormonal balance. Anandamide tends to affect more CB1 receptors in the central nervous system and more CB2 receptors in the peripheral nervous system. 2-AG is the most abundant endocannabinoid in the body and plays an important role in appetite regulation, immune system function, pain management, and inhibition of cancer cell proliferation. 2-AG acts as a full agonist of both CB receptors throughout the body.

What do Receptors and Endocannabinoids do?

EndocannabinoidsBecause they are located throughout your body and affect many different processes within your body, the ECS helps to regulate a myriad of your day to day functions, such as sleep, temperature regulation digestion, memory, mood, pain, pleasure and reward, motor control, reproduction, and immune function. That’s a lot of different functions relying on one system to keep everything in motion and balanced! Even the smallest disruption in the ECS can wreak havoc on your health.

Malfunction of the ECS is thought to play a role in diseases ranging from multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia to irritable bowel syndrome and migraines

This theory of disease is known as “Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency.” Basically, this theory states that when the ECS is out of whack, any of the many functions it’s responsible could become susceptible to disease.

What Does the ECS Have to do With Cannabis?

Cannabis contains a host of cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are similar to endocannabinoids except they are not made within our bodies. (Hence the removal of the “endo.”) Let’s look at the two most abundant cannabinoids in cannabis, THC and CBD.

THC is the most well known cannabinoid because of its psychoactive effects

THC is capable of “decoding” both CB1 and CB2 receptors directly, but it’s interaction with CB2 receptors seems to be associated with crucial processes such as cell death and generation. When it interacts with CB1 receptors, it seems to be associated with learning, memory, impulse, regulation of emotions, sleep, and appetite. CBD, on the other hand, does not interact with the receptors directly. Instead, it acts upon an enzyme that gobbles up excess anandamide called FAAH, thus increasing the available anandamide within your body. Did you know that anandamide comes from Ananda, the Sanskrit word for bliss? Anandamide is literally the “Bliss Chemical.” By making it more available within your body, CBD provides a boost to your mood and allows your ECS to utilize more of the anandamide made by your own body.

What Can I Do to Help Maintain my ECS?

Well, there are several things you can do to boost your endocannabinoid system. First of all, you can increase your intake of Omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oils are a popular choice for supplementing omega-3, but for a vegetarian option, consider hemp. Secondly, you can exercise more, Would it surprise you to know that the infamous “runner’s high” is not caused by a rush of endorphins but rather an increase in the production of endocannabinoids?

Cut down on your alcohol intake since is can desensitize endocannabinoid signaling

Finally, supplement with cannabis or hemp derived CBD! (Come on, you knew this one was coming! It’s a no brainer!)

And there you have it folks, a quick look at the endocannabinoid system. Of course, there are many, many more complex concepts involved, but this gives you a basic understanding of the concept. We have a LOT more research to do too. Our current understanding of the ECS is somewhat limited but it certainly explains how one plant is able to do so much! With it’s ability to act on a system that plays a vital role in pretty much every major function of your body, it’s no wonder cannabis has been credited with treating so many seemingly unrelated conditions.

Amber Faust

About the author: Amber Faust is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in natural lifestyle pieces and sociopolitical commentary. Amber is a lifelong activist for social justice and environmental issues. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, painting, drumming, meditation, and yoga.