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The Endocannabinoid System Explained

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Many are familiar with hemp and cannabis and the effects that THC, CBD and other cannabinoids have on the human body, but how many know why those cannabinoids have such profound effects? The reason lies in the endocannabinoid system (ECS), an endogenous system in the human brain and nervous system that produces naturally occurring cannabinoids, and reacts with the cannabinoids from the cannabis plant when consumed. 

What is it?

ECS is a naturally occurring biological system found in the human body, including the brain, nervous system, and certain vital organs that release endogenous cannabinoids similar to those of the cannabis plant by which the system was ultimately discovered. These naturally produced cannabinoids serve the common function of homeostasis which keeps the internal conditions of the human body in a constant state of stability despite the external effects surrounding it. 

Homeostasis is a vital part of major functions of the body including sleep, appetite, cognitive function and even reproduction. While there is some research on the ECS, there is a long way to go to determine the entirety of what it entails. From what has been researched, there is a consensus of what the ECS is composed of: cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids, and metabolic enzymes.

Cannabinoid receptors

Cannabinoid receptors are structures found on the outside of cells that are comparable to ‘transmitters’ that scan their environment waiting to pick up signals. The most studied, but not the only receptors, are called CB1 and CB2. While CB1 receptors are the most abundant throughout the nervous system, CB2 is found primarily outside of the nervous system. The functions they play in the body differ as well. For example, CB1 is the receptor in the brain responsible for getting people high when interacting with Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in marijuana. It’s safe to conclude that, depending on the location of the receptors in the body, the primary function will correlate as well.


Endocannabinoids are endogenous cannabinoids – meaning they are created naturally in the human body – and bind to the cannabinoid receptors like CB1 and CB2. While there is little known about the function of specific endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-arachidonoylGlycerol; speculations are that these endocannabinoids may be responsible for memory, embryo development and may even be found in breast milk. 

Metabolic enzymes

Metabolic enzymes are the final stop in the endocannabinoid system and are responsible for breaking down the endocannabinoids after they have been used from interaction with the receptors. This is important to regulate how the body uses endocannabinoids to ensure that they are only used when necessary for homeostasis.  

Functions in the body

So, how does the endocannabinoid system work? Throughout the body is a plethora of cannabinoid receptors that are stimulated by both naturally occurring endocannabinoids that the human body creates, and phytocannabinoids found in the hemp and cannabis plant. But, what are the internal functions in the human body that result from the endocannabinoid system? 

Inflammation control

Though inflammation is a natural and important physiological response to protect the body from things like disease and damage, it can go awry and cause more harm than good to the human body. But according to some studies in the South Carolina School of Medicine, endocannabinoids may serve to act as an anti-inflammatory when stimulating the CB2 receptors throughout the body. This may serve as an important role in preventing inflammation to a destructive point when the human body has an immune response, or when reacting to internal or external damage. 

Controlled neuron signalling

Neurons are responsible for sending messages from the brain throughout the body to control a number of different biological functions, but things can go dangerously wrong when those signals go haywire. 

Neurons work in conjunction with one another – meaning when one neuron starts sending electrochemical signals, those surrounding will follow suit; however, when one neuron starts signalling too much, it can cause a coordinated response from surrounding neurons to do the same causing an imbalance in the physiological response it’s intended for. So, what does a neuron do in response to overstimulation? It releases endocannabinoids to deter the surrounding neuron(s) from their overactivity, thus regulating the electrical signals of all the neurons surrounding them.

Healthy gut balance

Anandamide is an endocannabinoid commonly found within the human gut and pancreas that balances appetite and energy by engaging the nervous system via the CB2 cannabinoid receptors. This may be important to prevent illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome that are a result of an endocannabinoid imbalance in the gut. 

As discussed previously about inflammation in the body, anandamide corresponding with the CB2 receptors can potentially reduce inflammation in the large intestine, and other areas of the gastrointestinal tract under stress or illness. This can play a major factor in reducing painful gastrointestinal symptoms and explains why exogenous cannabinoids like CBD and THC can also alleviate these symptoms as well.

Final thoughts

While plenty of necessary research is still in progress, it is important to understand the value of the endocannabinoid system and its role in the production and consumption of cannabinoid-based products that have exploded in popularity within recent years. Research has revealed a cannabinoid-based system throughout the body that is responsible for the homeostasis of a wide variety of vital organs and systems in the human body – a testimony to the hemp and cannabis products and their efficacy used by so many around the world.


Image credit: Freepik

Jon Thompson, PhD, is a separations scientist and CEO of extraktLAB, an accredited engineering company for extraction, distillation and product formulation in the CBD, hemp and cannabis industries. 

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