The Endocannabinoid System

How does cannabis work for humans and animals?

An Endocannabinoid System Primer.


How can one plant have so many different medicinal uses? How is it possible that people have been using cannabis to treat everything from anxiety to cancer? Is this a modern day “magic pill” or “snake oil?” Are we being fooled?

The answers to these basic (and very common) questions lie in the physiology of the underlying Endocannabinoid System, or “ECS.” This physiologic system was only discovered in 1988 yet is present in all complex animals. In a nutshell, the ECS acts as a regulatory system in the body and aims to maintain homeostasis or “balance.” It affects an immense range of biological functions, once summarized by a famous scientist and professor as those that help us “relax, eat, sleep, forget and protect.”

The inner ECS is composed of chemical compounds called endocannabinoids, the receptors that these compounds bind to and interact with, and the enzymes involved in their synthesis and degradation.

The 2 most studied ECS receptors are called CB1 and CB2. They are both present on cell membranes throughout the body. In simple terms, CB1 is most concentrated in the brain and nervous system while CB2 is most concentrated within the cells and organs of the immune system.
The 2 most well known and studied endocannabinoids are called anandamide and 2-AG. Both internal compounds interact with the CB receptors constantly, managing and regulating numerous processes involving appetite, digestion, memory, sleep, pain response, movement, temperature and immune function…. just to name a few.

The phytocannabinoids (the compounds from the cannabis plant) also interact with the CB receptors and affect the body’s ECS. When introducing these plant-based compounds into the body, they can mimic, enhance or counteract the effects of the naturally occurring ECS substances present.
There are over 100 known phytocannabinoids occurring in the cannabis plant, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) being the most abundant and well known. All these plant-based compounds have numerous medicinal and physiologic effects on their own. When they are combined, the effects are enhanced to a degree that scientists are only beginning to understand. These compounds can be utilized to help maintain and support an individual’s ECS, to restore balance when it is disrupted by disease or injury, or simply to supplement when the body’s ECS in a depleted state.

From a therapeutic or preventative standpoint, simply adding phytocannabinoids to humans or animals can assist in restoring balance in any system that is under the regulation of the ECS. Normal metabolic processes ranging from brain to organ function as well as combating disease and repair after injury all fall into this category.

These facts account for the many varied and positive medicinal effects of cannabis and why scientists are actively pursuing research into the use of cannabis for so many different types of metabolic disorders and diseases as well as its use in various states of traumatic injury.


ECS References:

The Cannabis Pharmacy, the practical guide to medical marijuana. Michael Backes 2014. Black Dog & Leventhal publishers.

Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System. Dustin Sulak, OD., Cannabinoids 101. The science behind medical cannabis.

Introduction to the Endocannabinoid system. Ethan Russo, MD.