How Much Do We Know About The Endocannabinoid System?

There’s still so much we don’t know about how the various compounds in the cannabis plant affect the human body. The key to unlocking these secrets will be in understanding the intricacies of the endocannabinoid system.

How Much Do We Know About The Endocannabinoid System?


Historically, the legal restrictions around cannabis have made researching the plant extremely difficult for scientists. We’ve only recently discovered that the endocannabinoid system exists at all. Hopefully, as the cannabis prohibition laws in the west continue to wither away, we’ll learn more about this complex cell signaling system. In the meantime, here’s everything we know about the endocannabinoid system so far. 

What Is The Endocannabinoid System?

Explanation of endocannabinoid system

The endocannabinoid system comprises endocannabinoid receptors located mainly throughout the brain, and nervous system, which receive signals from the body in the form of chemical messengers called endocannabinoids. 

The system’s primary role is to help the human body maintain homeostasis. Essentially, it helps us stay balanced. 

While the endocannabinoids naturally produced by our bodies function as the main trigger for endocannabinoid receptors, the psychoactive compounds in cannabis like THC or CBD also interact directly with the endocannabinoid system.

When Was The Endocannabinoid System Discovered? 

ECS discovered in 1980

Our understanding of the endocannabinoid system acts as the foundation on which researchers can build further knowledge about cannabis and its medicinal potential. Despite its pivotal role in cannabis research, the endocannabinoid system is a relatively new discovery

In the 1980’s, scientific advancements, like the development of in vitro microelectrode arrays, gave researchers more tools to uncover the secrets of cannabis and the human body. Things kicked off during this decade in Dr. Allyn Howlett’s lab at St. Louis University, where the team uncovered compelling evidence for the existence of cannabinoid receptors using animal models. 

Later, in 1992, Raphael Mechoulam’s lab, the same research team that first discovered THC and CBD back in the ‘60s, would isolate the first endocannabinoid anandamide, officially discovering the endocannabinoid system. 

Endocannabinoid System Functions

CB1 & CB2 receptors for CBD

While there’s still plenty we don’t know about the functions of the endocannabinoid system, we do know it plays an essential role in regulating our bodies. Things like memory retention, reproduction, appetite, mood, and sleep patterns are all partially maintained by the endocannabinoid system. 

There are two distinct types of cannabinoid receptors—CB1 and CB2 receptors. 

CB1 receptors are mostly located throughout the brain and are associated with the cannabis plant’s analgesic, neuromodulatory, and psychedelic effects. The cannabinoid THC directly binds with CB1 receptors, which may be why it produces the infamous “high” associated with marijuana consumption. CB1 receptors can also be found in the peripheral nervous system, as well as the eyes and reproductive organs. 

CB2 receptors are found mostly in the central nervous system and immune cells. They play a significant role in cannabis’ anti-inflammatory effects and their activation may also positively affect synaptic plasticity.

What Is Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome? 

ECS deficiency symptoms

As we learn more about the intricacies of the endocannabinoid system, more theories begin to emerge that connect the endocannabinoid system to health conditions that have been historically difficult to treat and diagnose. 

One 2016 study from famed cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo, explored the possibility that fibromyalgia, migraines, and irritable bowel syndrome may be caused by a condition called endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome (CED).  

Russo posits that an imbalance of endocannabinoids could deregulate the endocannabinoid system, leading to the onset of these kinds of conditions. While there is little hard evidence for the existence of endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome, Russo’s work has found statistically significant differences in the endocannabinoid levels of sufferers from migraine, IBS, and fibromyalgia. It would also explain why all of these conditions can be treated with cannabis.

How Do Cannabinoids Affect The Endocannabinoid System? 

When we consume cannabis, the cannabinoids in the plant can activate our endocannabinoid system. However,  different cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system in different ways. 

For example, THC, in a way, mimics our naturally produced endocannabinoids by making direct bindings with the CB1 receptors in the brain, while CBD actually acts as an antagonist to both CB1 and CB2 receptors. Scientists speculate that difference accounts for the vast gap between the two cannabinoids’ effects. Its also why CBD is thought to modulate the negative effects of THC through the entourage effect.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the endocannabinoid system, but hopefully, as medicinal cannabis continues to be taken more seriously, scientists will be better able to learn more about this complex system.