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What is the endocannabinoid system?

By July 12, 2022No Comments

Discovered at the beginning of the ‘90s, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex system of cellular alert which helps the whole body’s well-being.

Here is what it is in detail and its functions.


Which are the functions of the endocannabinoid system and how does it work?

As anticipated, the main task of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain the body’s balance. For that to happen, it’s necessary that the ECS interacts with the body’s different functions and mechanisms and that’s why it’s function is strictly linked to:

  • the feeling of appetite and digestion;
  • the correct functioning of the metabolism;
  • the interaction with chronic pain, inflammation and other responses of the immunitary system;
  • learning and memory function;
  • sleep and tiredness;
  • the correct function of the cardiovascular system;
  • the forming of muscle tissue and bone growth;
  • hepatic function;
  • reproductive system;
  • nervous system;
  • skin health; this in particular, is one of the newest functions discovered. The endocannabinoids, in fact, are produced by the skin too as an answer to external triggers, from UV rays to pollution, and by internal ones, such as stress or bad diet. Once active, the endocannabinoid system is involved in the regulation of different biological processes, such as the growth and differentiation of skin cells.


Together, these functions help to achieve homeostasis, the balance and well-being of our body’s inner-self; as exhaustively explained in the study titled “An introduction to the endogenous cannabinoid system” published on the web site of the National Library of Medicine, when there’s a failure in this balance caused, for example, by an injury or a virus, the endocannabinoid system begins to activate to help the body regain its own equilibrium.


Endocannabinoids, receptors and enzymes

To function properly, the endocannabinoid system involves in particular three elements: endocannabinoids, receptors and enzymes.


Endocannabinoids (known too as endogenous cannabinoids) are small molecules produced by the human body and of lipidic nature which act as neuromodulators in the central nervous system maintaining the balance of all the inner body’s functions.

Up until now two key endocannabinoids have been found: anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG); these are produced in different amounts in each body so it’s now still difficult to know the typical values for each person.


These endocannabinoids bond with the receptors, present in the whole body, to alert and request the activation of our endocannabinoid system. There are two main receptors for the endocannabinoid: receptors CB1, mostly present in the central nervous system, and the receptors CB2, present in the peripheral ones, especially in the immune cells. The effects of this relation depends on where the receptor to which the endocannabinoid bonds is positioned: if, for example, the receptors CB1 are activated in the spinal nerve, the ECS will activate pain relief in that specific area; if, instead, they link to a CB2 receptor in the immune cells, it’s usually to alert there’s inflammation in the body.


Enzymes, lastly, take on the role of disassembling the endocannabinoids once they have achieved their task. Today we know about two enzymes: the amidohydrolase of the fat acid (or FAAH) and the protein monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL).


Endocannabinoid system and the interaction with THC and CBD

When we talk about endocannabinoids we refer to the molecules produced naturally by the body, but non-endogenous cannabinoids, such as THC or CBD present in Cannabis, can help in the correct functioning of the endocannabinoid system.


Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), of psychotropic effect, is for example one of the main cannabinoids present in cannabis. Once in the body, THC interacts with the endocannabinoid system bonding with the receptors (both CB1 and CB2) affecting both the mind and the body: it can reduce the feeling of pain, but also increase appetite.


At the same time, so does the cannabidiol (CBD), the main non-psychoactive compound of cannabis, interacting with the ECS thereby inhibiting the breaking down of the endocannabinoids allowing them to have a greater effect, reducing pain and nausea.


It’s precisely the interaction between cannabinoids (and the minor cannabinoids) and the endocannabinoid system that proves the great therapeutic benefits of Cannabis, as explained in a recent study of 2021 titled “Cannabinoids, the endocannabinoid system, and pain: a review of preclinical studies” available on the web site of the National Library of Medicine.