The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

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It comes as a surprise that for many years scientists knew nothing about the endocannabinoid system. To date, this system is excluded from medical textbooks and classrooms, consequently many medics are still in the dark. In case you are wondering why this system is all-to-important, this is it. Scientists recently discovered that half of the receptors in the body are endocannabinoid receptors. If this is the case, then the human body cannot be fully understood without a thorough understanding of the endocannabinoid system.

What is the endocannabinoid system?

The body is made up of 8 vital systems:

  • Digestive system
  • Circulatory system
  • Respiratory system
  • Reproductive system
  • Central nervous system
  • Endocrine system
  • Urinary system
  • Endocannabinoid system

The endocannabinoid system is therefore one of the systems that make up the human body. It is made up of the following parts:

  • Endocannabinoids
  • Endocannabinoid receptors
  • Metabolic enzymes

These three components work together to maintain homeostasis the Council of Europe Guidelines on food supplements (2005) defines homeostasis as “The status of a person whose physiological parameters function within the limits considered as normal.”

Parts of the ECS

The ECS is not only found in humans, it is found in all mammals as well.

Cannabinoid Receptors

The ECS has two main types of receptors, the CB1 receptors which are predominantly in the brain and the CB2 receptors which are located in the immune system and other parts of the body. There is a third receptor known as the GPR55.

Since the CB1 receptor is found predominantly in the brain it is involved with regulating higher functions. The CB2 receptor is largely involved with immunity. However, these endocannabinoid receptors are spread out in almost all parts of the body and there is still much that is not understood about this diverse system.


There are two main endocannabinoids in the human body, anandamide and 2-AG. Anandamide is also known as the bliss molecule and binds to the CB1 receptor in the CNS. 2-AG binds to the CB2 receptor peripherally. Anandamide is broken down by the metabolic enzyme called FAAH while 2-AG is broken down by MAGL. These metabolic enzymes complete the third component of the ECS.

How the ECS works

The ECS is a signaling pathway that works in a retrograde fashion. To break this down, this system communicates in a backward fashion. Signals move from post synaptic cell to the presynaptic cell. In usual signaling, signals should move from the presynaptic to the postsynaptic cell.

Why is this important?

By doing this, the ECS is able to block the release of certain molecules (neurotransmitters) from the presynaptic cells. This is how the ECS is able to modulate many functions in the body and maintain homeostasis.

How the Endocannabinoid System Works

The functioning of the ECS is pegged upon endocannabinoids binding to cannabinoid receptors. When they do this they trigger a signaling pathway that resets parameters that are off so that homeostasis can be achieved. The ECS modulates important neurotransmitters in the body such as GABA, glutamate, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, histamine, and serotonin.

Generally speaking, the ECS is a complex system with far reaching effects on human health. Early evidence suggests that this system has an influence the following vital functions:

  • Pain and inflammation
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Sleep
  • Memory
  • Hunger
  • Reproduction
  • Immunity

Hemp- derived CBD and the Endocannabinoid System

Phytocannabinoids such as cannabidiol mimic the actions of endocannabinoids. They equally interact with the ECS to support its role in maintaining physiological balance in the body.

THC mimics anandamide by binding to CB1 receptors in the brain. CBD on the other hand mimics the action of 2-AG. In spite of its poor affinity for CB1 & CB2, CBD still has a great influence on the endocannabinoid system.

Ultimately, both THC and CBD support and optimize the functions of a healthy ECS. Unlike THC, CBD does not cause psychoactive effects. Because of this, hemp-derived CBD is legal in many countries while THC is not. In the UK, CBD is classified as a food supplement.