What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

The use of cannabis in medicine dates back approximately five thousand years, but it is only in the last 100 years that advances in testing, extraction methods, and technology have let scientists isolate and observe how specific compounds like THC, CBD, and CBN act upon biological systems. What was discovered in the process is a robust innate system that has since been identified to exist in all vertebrates and invertebrate animals.

Now called the endocannabinoid system because of the plant that sparked its discovery, the system was first described in the early 1990s as researchers tried to identify why THC had an intoxicating effect on rats. It was then observed that there was a robust, dynamic system of receptors located throughout the nervous system that was responsive to THC. Further study has since revealed various receptors in major organs, the immune system, and the GI tract — varying on individual-to-individual basis. Scientists have now inferred based on genetic comparison that the ECS has been evolving for some 600 million years.

But what is this system doing for us? In a word, the endocannabinoid system is a regulator. Acting as the body’s umbrella, it oversees nervous system functions like patterns of sleep, mood, and emotion processing, and activating it helps promote homeostasis.

How does it work?

It can help to visualize the system of different receptors, which exist in nearly every cell in your body, as similar to a spiderweb, with the connections behaving like communication pathways. Though there are multiple receptor types, the primary ones are abbreviated as CB1 and CB2, with concentration levels higher in the central nervous system for the former, and the latter clustered in the GI tract and peripheral nervous system. The receptors are triggered when acted upon by an agonist such as a cannabinoid like CBD or THC or a cannabinoid-like chemical, which we naturally produce. Other plant components like terpenes, the organic compounds that account for a plant's aroma and flavor, and can have therapeutic effects in their own right, also behave like cannabinoids and can interact with and affect the ECS. 

Why is it important?

The discovery of this biological communication system in modern times has had a massive impact on the direction of science and the kinds of questions people are asking about plant-based practices. Though there's much to study and understand about the interactions between our and animal bodies and the plant kingdoms, the presence of the endocannabinoid system and its receptors, as well as naturally occurring cannabinoid-like chemicals in the brain, illustrates the direct biological correlation.

It is also now understood that essential fatty acids (commonly underrepresented in Western diets) Linoleic Acid and Alpha Linoleic Acid both bind to endocannabinoid receptors, and scientists are trying to understand the precise role they play in neurological disorders like stroke, which are a leading cause of death. 

The body has an innate ability to maintain itself, but that can go awry due to injury, stress, inflammation, and disease. Part of your body maintaining itself is adapting to different situations and external stressors, and cannabis continues to be rigorously researched for its applications in pain, mood, appetite, skin issues, and more, precisely because of what is being learned about the endocannabinoid system. The ECS is now being studied for its role in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, both linked to inflammation, as well as bowel diseases like Crohn's, and stress-related conditions like depression, and a variety of skin concerns from aging to wound healing. 


Blondeau, Nicolas et al. “Alpha-linolenic acid: an omega-3 fatty acid with neuroprotective properties-ready for use in the stroke clinic?.” BioMed research international vol. 2015 (2015): 519830. doi:10.1155/2015/519830

Di Marzo, Vincenzo et al. “Endocannabinoid signalling and the deteriorating brain.” Nature reviews. Neuroscience vol. 16,1 (2015): 30-42. doi:10.1038/nrn3876

Zamberletti, Erica et al. “Lifelong imbalanced LA/ALA intake impairs emotional and cognitive behavior via changes in brain endocannabinoid system.” Journal of lipid research vol. 58,2 (2017): 301-316. doi:10.1194/jlr.M068387