What Is Endocannabinoid System & Why Is It Important For Our Health?

Written by - Reviewed by Consumer Health Digest Team

Published: Dec 25, 2017 | Last Updated: Oct 4, 2018


We all remember learning about the major systems of the human body back when we were in school. There are eleven of them in total. I won’t list them all, but I am sure you remember some of the major ones such as digestive, nervous, muscular, etc.

The list appears fairly comprehensive, but in 1994 scientists discovered another one, the Endocannabinoid System (or ECS). The reason for this very recent discovery is an interesting story on its own, but in this article, I will concentrate on what it is, why its functioning is critical to your health, and the role the cannabis plant can play in its maintenance.

The ECS consists of three major components. The first of these are millions of receptors scattered throughout our brain and body. The second are the naturally occurring compounds (called endocannabinoids) created by our body which interact with these receptors.

The third major component is a host of enzymes which both create and remove these compounds as required, but for the purpose of this article, this third component will only be identified here.

Let’s take a closer look at the receptors. They break down into two broad categories called CB1 & CB2. The CB1 receptors are found mostly in the nervous system and brain. There are millions of them, surpassing the number of opioid receptors.

While much research remains to be done, these receptors have been implicated in modulating a wide variety of responses from emotions (euphoria, fear, humor, etc), to pain management, and even PTSD.

Endocannabinoid System

CB2 receptors are scattered throughout the rest of the body, interacting with almost all of the body’s other systems and helping to control inflammation, infection, body temperature, muscle spasms, and a variety of other conditions.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting there may be other CB receptors as well, but to date, only the CB1/CB2 receptors have been identified. Curiously, unlike opioid receptors, there are no CB receptors located in the brainstem.

Therefore, a lethal overdose of cannabis is virtually impossible. In over 5000 years of recorded history, there has never been one death attributable to a cannabis overdose. This means that cannabinoid-based therapies are vastly safer than those based on opioids.

As mentioned, these receptors are activated by naturally occurring compounds called endogenous cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids. Five such compounds have been discovered. The best known is called “anandamide” and among other effects, is responsible for the “runner’s high” that many long-distance runners experience.

These compounds are produced and distributed through the body when imbalances occur brought on by illness, injury, or environmental toxicity. In fact, scientists currently believe that the principal role of the ECS is to help the body achieve “homeostasis”, or balance.

Woman Hemp

What does all this have to do with cannabis? As it turns out, quite a bit. The cannabis plant contains over 100 cannabinoid compounds (the most famous being THC and CBD), that are able to interact with the CB receptors. Essentially, the cannabinoids in the plant (technically called phytocannabinoids) mimic our body’s own cannabinoids.

By increasing the total amount of cannabinoids in the body the therapeutic and curative abilities of the ECS are also increased. This is one of the reasons cannabis has been implicated as a treatment across such a wide range of conditions.

Unlike pharmaceutical medicines which mostly target a single system or condition, cannabis provides the raw materials (cannabinoids) which the ECS requires to move the body back towards homeostasis.

It is, therefore, more appropriate to think of cannabis as a nutrient (like a vitamin) than medicine. This is not such a difficult thing to accept since health professionals and nutritionists have been telling us for years about the value of getting our essential nutrients from plants.

Cannabis is a plant, containing unique compounds that can be processed by our bodies for a wide variety of conditions. Sounds like an essential nutrient to me!

Unfortunately, most medical professionals have received little to no training at all about the ECS. While there are tens of thousands of scholarly articles on the topic, most doctors think of cannabis-based therapies in the same category as aromatherapy or acupuncture.


In other words, they don’t think there is enough science-based evidence. This makes it very challenging to sit down with your family doctor to have an open discussion about the value of using cannabis to treat any particular condition.

Even if you are fortunate to live in a place where medical cannabis is legal you probably will still end up having a rather challenging discussion about using cannabis to treat any particular condition.

A good place to start is to inquire if they know anything about the ECS. If they don’t then it will probably be up to you to educate them! Not an easy task, but it can be done.

One of the most important points to keep in mind is that cannabis is safer than any other medication a doctor can prescribe. While there is a small danger of short-lived negative effects (especially for first-time users), it is impossible to have a fatal overdose, and there are no long-term adverse effects.

Dependency is possible, but withdrawal symptoms are very mild (if at all), and the dependency can be easily treated.


Bottom Line

Our bodies have a built-in system to regulate our immune response. The cannabinoids from the cannabis plant can interact with the ECS to improve its overall functioning.

These cannabinoids are among the safest compounds you can consume. Even after considering any short-term adverse effects, the therapeutic or curative benefits of cannabis outweigh any downside consequences of its use.

By understanding the basic operation of the ECS, you will not only be better prepared to incorporate cannabis into your health regime but hopefully also be better prepared to help your doctor fill in some important gaps in their understanding of how the human body works.

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