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the endocannabinoid system
Cannabis 101

What is the endocannabinoid system?

Gregg PadulaDecember 26, 2019

The Endocannabinoid System, or ECS, is a complex signaling network found in all mammals. It is responsible for regulating many of the body's natural functions such as mood, memory, motor function, appetite, pain, immune response, and temperature. Discovered in the early 1990's, the ECS continues to be the most mysterious and unexplored major bodily system, remaining absent from the modern physicians' curriculum.

The ECS is active in your body regardless of whether or not you consume cannabis. Though still in its infant stages of research and understanding, the ECS continues to surprise researchers, patients, and skeptics of the efficacy of cannabis in medicine and wellness.

What do we know about the Endocannabnoid System today?

So far, we understand that the ECS is made up of cannabinoid receptors and molecules called endocannabinoids that are synthesized by the body on demand. (In Latin, “endo" means "inside, within, internal.") Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body and work like a lock and key with endocannabinoids. When the two meet they alter the release of neurotransmitters to relay messages between nerve cells.

Simply put, human beings are hard-wired for cannabis from the moment they are born.

This constant use of endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors to keep our many bodily functions and systems in a general state of balance is better known as homeostasis. These receptors can be unlocked by the body's own organic endocannabinoids (i.e. cannabinoids produced by and within your body), or they can activate with the introduction of cannabinoids derived from cannabis – the most active being THC, CBD, and CBN. Cannabinoids are also found in a mother's breast milk and foods like walnuts, teas, anchovies and eggs.

Are we blinding you with science yet? If not, read on... 

What are CB1 and CB2 receptors?

Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. With this knowledge we can begin to learn why cannabinoids can have such diverse and profound effects from person to person, and can impact so many different medical conditions and bodily ailments. This realization and increasing acceptance of the ECS by members of the medical community have been huge contributors to to getting most of the country in support of legalized medical marijuana.

Researchers have identified the two most active cannabinoid receptors as CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are predominantly present in the nervous system, connective tissues, glands, and organs – while CB2 receptors are predominantly found in the immune system. With legalization and the opening of more research, time will tell if there are additional cannabinoid receptors and related medical advances.

As the use of cannabis for medical conditions continues to grow exponentially, it may be time to add the Endocannabinoid System to future editions of anatomy and physiology textbooks in order to bridge the uncomfortable stigma that comes along with asking your doctor about cannabis as a possible treatment for your specific condition.

Gregg Padula
Gregg Padula
Gregg Padula is a cannabis columnist with industry roots reaching back to Humboldt County, CA in the early 2000’s – and later as one of the first cultivators in Massachusetts’ medical cannabis industry. This unique vantage point is explored in much of his work for Gatehouse Media and