What is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)?

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Added 28 November 2022

Our bodies are super complex and are controlled by a dense neural network, which includes the brain and the nervous system. The brain contains around 93 billion neurons and the body contains around 112 non-neuronal cells. Impressive, huh?

Combined, these cells manage all the communication happening in your body, including the production of hormones, compounds, appetite, metabolism, sleep, and a lot more. 

In this dense network, like a highway, there exists the endocannabinoid system — think of it like a signal crossing on the road. An endocannabinoid system is a group of receptors that are spread all around your body, including the brain, which handles the transfer of communication from one cell to the other. 

Considering how crucial this system is, it is no wonder that it can have a terrific impact on your body — under the right conditions, the endocannabinoid system can make you live a healthy, balanced life, but if it suffers a problem, it can lead to various conditions. 

So, what exactly is the endocannabinoid system and how does it function, and where does cannabis come into all this? Find out in this article. 

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system, in short ECS, is an intricate network of cell-signaling receptors, that was first discovered in the early 1990s by scientists exploring the effects of THC on the human mind, which is where it gets its name from.

Cannabinoids are compounds found in the cannabis plant — you would already know a few like THC, CBD, CBN, et al., but endocannabinoids refer to cannabinoid-like compounds that are already present in the human body; hence the prefix — endo. 

Our brain and neural network are nothing less than a supercomputer, which is a lot isn't known about it. Scientists are still trying to figure out how ECS works, but so far, it is suggested that it plays a crucial role in a range of functions in your body, such as the following:

  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • Appetite
  • Memory
  • Fertility 

The ECS exists regardless of your use of cannabis, which means even those that haven't touched cannabis in his/her life will have the ECS (and endocannabinoids) in their body. 

How was the Endocannabinoid System Discovered?

How was the Endocannabinoid System Discovered?

Here’s a fun fact — when scientists discovered the first endocannabinoid, they named it after the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss. The endocannabinoid is what we now call anandamide — the bliss molecule

And all of us have such molecules that resemble cannabinoids found in cannabis floating around in our bodies, but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that we bridged the connection between phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids. 

During this time, Raphael Mechoulam, Ph.D., an Israeli researcher, identified the two active compounds in cannabis — THC and CBD. What followed was a deep dive into studying these compounds and how they affected our brains in terms of pharmacology, clinical effects, and biochemistry, but they knew little about how these compounds actually worked. 

According to the experts that followed Mechoulam, it was believed that THC disrupted the cell membranes, leading to a change in cellular behavior. 

But in 1988, Allyn Howlett, Ph.D., and her St. Louis University lab used the radiolabeling technique to identify high-affinity binding sites (cannabinoid receptors) in the brains of their rat subjects. 

And two years later, scientists managed to clone the CB1 receptors in humans and rats. By 1992, Mechoulam’s lab successfully identified anandamide — the first discovered endocannabinoid. 

And the following year, one researcher from Cambridge University managed to clone CB2 receptors. Two years later, Mechoulam’s lab discovered yet another endocannabinoid — 2-AG. 

Till now, anandamide and 2-AG remain the two primary endocannabinoids of the human body, but some are still being discovered, and perhaps many are yet to be discovered. 

How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?

How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?

The endocannabinoid system is made of three components — endocannabinoids, CB receptors, and enzymes. Let’s take a look at them in detail.


Endocannabinoids are short of endogenous cannabinoids, and as mentioned earlier, these molecules resemble the shape of phytocannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Yet, endocannabinoids are solely produced by your body, not through plants. 

There are two main endocannabinoids present in your body, as per the latest research, which is anandamide and 2-AG. And these endocannabinoids are responsible for various internal functions of your body. 

But since the human body produces them as and when required, it is still difficult for experts to identify their typical levels or exact quantities. 

Endocannabinoid Receptors

Endocannabinoids work through the endocannabinoid receptors found in the human body. The endocannabinoids (and even phytocannabinoids) bind to the receptors, signaling the endocannabinoid system about the actions that must be taken. 

And there are two main types of endocannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2 receptors. 

Essentially, the endocannabinoid system, especially those located in the brain (CB1) contains an immense network of cellular receptors and chemical signals, densely packed in our bodies and brains, that act like the traffic police — they control the activity and levels of many neurotransmitters. 

With the help of instantaneous feedback, the ECS can regulate the transmission of signals by either turning up or down the activity of a specific system or hormones, including things like temperature, alertness, and hunger. 

Now, these receptors need to be simulated to work — the simulants act as the feedback — for this, our bodies produce endocannabinoids.

On the other hand, CB2 receptors, which mostly exist in the immune tissues of our bodies are essential in controlling the immune functions of the body. For example, these receptors play a role in modulating intestinal inflammation, pain in bowel conditions, and contractions. 

What sets CB2 receptors apart from CB1 ones is that they cannot produce a high that is often associated with cannabis. 


The third and last part of the ECS equation is enzymes, which break down the above-mentioned endocannabinoids after they have accomplished their goal by binding to the CB receptors. 

And two enzymes help with most of the breakdown functions, including:

  • Fatty acid amide hydrolase — responsible for breaking down anandamide 
  • Monoacylglycerol acid lipase — which breaks down 2-AG

How Does Your Body Produce Endocannabinoids?

How Does Your Body Produce Endocannabinoids?

Phytocannabinoids can be found in plants, but how does your body manage to produce similar molecules, aka endocannabinoids, in itself? Perhaps it is due to evolution. 

These endocannabinoids, which are present all across your body, including your brain, muscles, and blood, only become active when they bind to either CB1 or CB2 receptors, which are also located throughout the body. 

So far, scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how the mechanism that triggers these endocannabinoids to bind to the ECS receptors works. However, a largely accepted theory is that when one of the body’s systems is out of whack, the endocannabinoids bind to the receptors to bring the system back in balance. 

But what we know so far is that this mechanism is extremely precise. For instance, if your body temperature is out of the ideal range, your body’s ECS will regulate it by altering other bodily processes. Once the temperature is balanced, the endocannabinoids are broken down by the enzymes to prevent the problem from overcorrecting. 

What is the Function of the Endocannabinoid System?

What is the Function of the Endocannabinoid System?

The ECS, like most other parts of our neural network, is extremely intricate and complex. So, experts are still exploring the various functions ECS handles regularly. But according to the latest studies, the endocannabinoid system is linked to the following processes:

  • Metabolism 
  • Appetite and digestion
  • Mood 
  • Sleep 
  • Memory 
  • Motor control
  • Chronic pain, inflammation, and other responses related to the immune system
  • Cardiovascular functions 
  • Muscle development 
  • Bone growth
  • Liver function 
  • Fertility and reproductive functions 
  • Nerve and skin functions 

This is where homeostasis comes into play — which refers to the stability of your body’s internal environment. For instance, if you suffer an injury or cold, your body’s homeostasis is thrown out of balance. Here, the ECS steps into action to help your body restore its homeostasis or ideal operations. 

According to experts, the function of the endocannabinoid system can be summarized into two words: maintaining homeostasis. 

Can You Suffer from Endocannabinoid Deficiency?

Can You Suffer from Endocannabinoid Deficiency?

Like cannabis plants, sometimes, even we suffer from various deficiencies, be it vitamins, iron, or even sunlight. So, it’s not a surprise that you can also suffer from an endocannabinoid deficiency. 

Although not a lot of research has gone into this deficiency, some experts believe in clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) — which suggests that ECS dysfunction or endocannabinoid deficiencies can lead to various conditions. 

According to a 2016 review, which studied a decade of research regarding ECS and its role in the human body, CECD can be one of the reasons why people develop conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, migraine, and fibromyalgia. These conditions often don’t have a clear underlying cause and are resistant to treatments.

Experts believe that if CECD does cause such conditions, targeting the endocannabinoid system and balancing the endocannabinoid production could help in treating these conditions; although, more research is required. 

Can Targeting ECS Treat Conditions?

Can Targeting ECS Treat Conditions?

Even if ECS may not be an underlying cause for these conditions, various research studies suggest that targeting ECS can be used to treat various conditions, including HIV, cancer, Dravet syndrome, and seizures. 

Currently, in the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two drugs that contain synthetic cannabinoids. 

The two drugs are Marinol and Syndros, which contain a synthetic equivalent of THC, dronabinol, and are used to treat nausea and vomiting that occurs when people undergo chemotherapy along with weight loss and appetite problems related to HIV.

On the other hand, another drug, Cesamet, which contains nabilone, another chemical that is similar to THC, is approved to treat nausea, and Epidiolex was approved by the FDA to treat pediatric seizure disorders like infantile spasms, Dravet syndrome, Lennon-Gastaut syndrome, and tuberous sclerosis complex. 

Additionally, a 2017 study published by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (US) suggests that there is significant evidence that such cannabinoids can also help treat conditions such as the following:

  • Chronic pain
  • Spasticity in multiple sclerosis
  • Insomnia
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Anxiety
  • Traumatic brain injury 
  • Skin disorders
  • Lupus
  • Autism 
  • Diabetes
  • Bacterial infections

While more research is still required on this subject, experts believe that by targeting the ECS specifically, we can potentially treat various conditions that previously had no clear underlying cause or viable treatment. 

Can Cannabinoids be used for Therapeutic Purposes?

Can Cannabinoids be used for Therapeutic Purposes?

As you may have noticed earlier, the drugs approved for CECD resemble THC, which is one of the two primary cannabinoids present in cannabis. So, can cannabis help too?

The answer is yes, cannabis phytocannabinoids can also help in treating endocannabinoid system problems or CECD. 

Essentially, the endocannabinoid system in your body can be traced back to ancient lips in the plant kingdom — which indicates that similar lipids in plants can also play a role in our endocannabinoid system. 

Cannabis contains two primary cannabinoids: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinol (CBD). These cannabinoids (along with other phytocannabinoids) resemble the endocannabinoids of the human body — thanks to evolution — and can come in handy when there is a lack of endocannabinoids in one’s body. 

Let’s take a look at the two cannabinoids more in detail.


When you smoke cannabis, the THC enters your lungs and gets absorbed into the bloodstream. After a few minutes, your circulatory system transports THC to your brain and other body tissues, where it alters the neural chemistry — this is what produces the cannabis high.

Now, once these THC molecules cross the blood-brain barrier, they fit perfectly into the CB receptors in your brain, much like your endocannabinoids. This is because THC is quite similar to anandamide in terms of its chemical structure. Once it binds to the receptors, it can alter normal brain communication, which can influence your memory, pleasure, thinking, movement, concentration, sensory perceptions, etc.

For example, THC can bind to the receptors in the cerebellum and basal ganglia, which can affect your posture, coordination, balance, and reaction time, which is why it is not recommended to drive a vehicle after consuming cannabis. 

Research has also found that THC can activate your brain’s reward system by stimulating the nerves in that part, which produces more dopamine in your body. 


On the other hand, CBD — a cannabinoid that is non-psychoactive and does not produce any kind of high. While experts aren’t exactly sure how CBD interacts with ECS, they state that it does not bind to the receptors as THC does.

Some experts believe that CBD prevents various endocannabinoids from breaking down while others believe that it may be binding to a receptor that is not yet discovered by science. Regardless of how it works, studies have proven that CBD can help significantly in dealing with various conditions like pain, nausea, appetite loss, and a lot more. 

Other Minor Cannabinoids

Cannabis contains over 200 phytocannabinoids, many of which can have a significant effect on your endocannabinoid system. These minor cannabinoids include cannabigerol (CBG), cannabinol (CBN), and cannabichromene (CBC). 

Not a lot is known about these minor cannabinoids, but they are of great scientific interest as, like CBD and THC, they may also have a positive effect on the human endocannabinoid system. 

So, yes, cannabinoids present in cannabis can and are being used for therapeutic purposes.

Experts are unsure how exactly cannabis works in treating the various conditions mentioned earlier, but there are a few possible explanations. The first is that cannabis can trigger the ECS system to produce more anandamide, dopamine, or other hormones that can alleviate the symptoms.

Additionally, for conditions that may be caused due to endocannabinoid deficiency, phytocannabinoids can act as an alternative to endocannabinoids or even encourage the human body to produce more endocannabinoids. 

Basically, the cannabinoids present in cannabis can work in various ways to bring the ECS back to balance while also promoting the production of compounds like anandamide, dopamine, and serotonin, which can alleviate the symptoms. 

So, if you want to enhance your endocannabinoid system, consuming cannabis is the most effective way of doing so as you're giving your body a cannabinoid boost. But you must know exactly what you're looking for — consuming THC for a condition that would require CBD is pointless.

It is recommended that you first talk to your doctor and get to know your condition better. After that, you need to find the right product and the right dose so you can get the best benefits out of it. 

You also need to buy cannabis products from reputable sellers that contain the right levels of CBD and/or THC. You can either choose CBD-rich products if you don’t want the intense high of THC, or you can use THC-rich products that will also get you high. On the other hand, for balanced support for your ECS system, you can choose 1:1 CBD to THC products that contain CBD and THC in equal measures. 

What are Some Other Ways to Enhance the Endocannabinoid System?

What are Some Other Ways to Enhance the Endocannabinoid System?

Of course, cannabis isn’t the only way to support your endocannabinoid system. You can also practice other routines for the same. 

One of the easiest things you can do to support your ECS is to consume more herbs like oregano, black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. These herbs contain beta-caryophyllene — a terpene that is also found in cannabis — that stimulates the CB2 receptor. This encourages the production of anandamide in the body that can influence stress and mood, and regulate pain. 

You can also look into exercising, but it must be something that you like and enjoy. Studies suggest that working out in a way that you don’t like can be interpreted by the ECS as stress; instead, if you choose something you enjoy, you can increase the endocannabinoid levels in your body significantly.

You can also follow these tips:

  • Reduce the intake of processed foods, sodas, and sugars. Instead, consume fruits and vegetables since your gut microbiome is one of the major regulators of the ECS
  • Manage your stress to bring an internal balance in your body 
  • Consume dark chocolate 
  • Get a full night’s sleep 
  • Drink natural spring water

Following these tips, and maintaining homeostasis — maintaining the optimal functions of your body — along with consuming the right cannabis products can greatly enhance your ECS, bringing a positive impact in your life. 

Summary: What is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)?

The endocannabinoid system’s health is vital to your body and it helps the body maintain its homeostasis. Still, not a lot is known about this system — in fact, not a lot is known about our brains, either. 

Scientists are still trying to figure out how this system works, although discoveries are made every year. So far, we have discovered two types of receptors: CB1 and CB2, along with a few endocannabinoids that work on these receptors.

Along with that, when scientists were studying the effects of cannabis on the human body, they also found that the plant’s cannabinoids work much the same way as the endocannabinoids. And various studies have shown that phytocannabinoids from cannabis can actually help the human ECS because they resemble the endocannabinoids.

So, if you want to maintain your ECS and keep your body in homeostasis, it is recommended that you maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle, and consume herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

And if you want an extra ECS boost or are suffering from a condition like a migraine or chronic pain, you can even consume cannabis. The cannabinoids present in the plant can bind to your ECS receptors and trigger them to produce various hormones and endocannabinoids that can help you find relief. 

All you have to remember is to choose the right cannabis product and consume the right dose for the best effect. And in any case, it is recommended that you always consult a doctor before using cannabis for medicinal reasons. While it is legal, it may still have negative side effects if combined with other drugs. 


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