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The endocannabinoid system in humans.

August 12th, 2019

The Human Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

We thought it might be of interest for you to understand how your body interacts with cannabinoids. At Joey Hemp, we make it our business to provide user friendly, easily digestible information that provides you with a well-rounded view.

Diving into the Endocannabinoid System, we discover[1] that researchers named it after naturally occurring (endogenous), marijuana-like (cannabis) substances produced in the body. Dr. Dustin Sulak, director of Integr8 Health, and someone intimately familiar with administering CBD treatment, describes the role of the ECS – ‘…the site of an injury, for example, cannabinoids can be found decreasing the release of activators and sensitizers from the injured tissue, stabilizing the nerve cell to prevent excessive firing, and calming nearby immune cells to prevent release of pro-inflammatory substances. Three different mechanisms of action on three different cell types for a single purpose: minimize the pain and damage caused by the injury.’

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reports that the ECS plays a huge role “in the secretion of hormones related to reproductive functions and response to stress.” The ECS seems to hold a multifunctional role, including regulating energy homeostasis, lipids synthesis as well as metabolism of glucose in your muscle cells.[2]

The EC system comprises 3 parts:[3]

  • Endocannabinoids;
  • Receptors in the nervous system and your body that endocannabinoids and cannabinoids bond with; and
  • Enzymes that help break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids

It was during the 1990s that scientists discovered our bodies naturally produced endocannabinoids during their research of THC effects on the human body. It was found that these molecules are present in all vertebrate and some invertebrate animals, evolving over a course of 500 million years!

Initial research suggested that endocannabinoid receptors were found only in the nervous system and brain itself but today, we can include multiple systems and processes that rely on these super molecules. Who knew the ECS was instrumental in the functioning of various organs, like the Endocrine system (pancreas, liver and kidneys), our immune system, reproductive facilities, metabolism and more![4]

Prior to discovering just how vital this system is to our health, many assumed that a certain demographic wanted the drug legalized. Now, however, we understand that it’s responsible for regulating many bodily functions:[5]


  • Appetite
  • Digestion
  • Immune function
  • Inflammation, including neuro-inflammation
  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • Reproduction/fertility
  • Motor control
  • Temperature regulation
  • Memory
  • Pain
  • Pleasure/reward

Much of the above keeps the body operating, not to mention keeping you functioning optimally (homestasis). Think about ECS like a computer’s diagnostic system – it keeps an eye on everything, and when something is “off” the diagnostic system i.e. your ECS is activated.

So how does it function exactly?

Simply put, there are 2 types (confirmation of a third currently in the works) of cannabinoid receptors in the ECS:[6] 

  • CB1 – located in the central nervous system (brain and nerves in the spinal cord); and
  • CB2 – located in the peripheral nervous system (nerves in your fingers and toes), the digestive system, and specialized cells in the immune system

These receptors are mainly found in the central nervous system. What’s important to note is that the ECS acts with precision, regulating that which is “out of order” rather than a bandaid solution.

Okay but how do these receptors know when to stop?

Good question! In a reasonably healthy body, after the endocannabinoids have brought law and order to the chaos, certain enzymes are released which breaks these molecules down. This prevents the body from getting out of balance again.

What’s the difference between this and using CBD oil or smoking marijuana?

Glad you asked! Smoking marijuana means you end up being loaded with psychoactive side effects. Sure, both CBD (cannabidiol) and THC is present but one never knows how THC may affect you mentally and physiologically. When you smoke marijuana, cannabinoid molecules attach themselves to the CB1 receptor in your brain, creating the associated “high”. These molecules, technically known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), are similar to that produced by your own body: anandamide. The difference is the effect, where the former creates a high while the latter calms you down in a beneficial manner.

How does the body know which is which?

Remember we mentioned enzymes responsible for breaking down these molecules once they achieve homeostasis? Well, the FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) enzyme is geared to break down naturally occuring endocannabinoids when required, however, it cannot break down THC which ends up sticking around much longer.

But they’re trying to legalize marijuana is certain states, aren’t they?

Well, CBD-based products are safe from psychoactive side effects, i.e. there is no THC present, and CBD-based products stimulate activity of the ECS without some of the more unwanted effects like paranoia, aggression or anxiety.

Cannabinoid receptors in the brain

CBD also stops the FAAH enzyme from breaking down the naturally produced anandamide – this is proving useful as a potential treatment option for researchers studying anxiety disorders.

Okay, so how do your products affect the ECS?

The science is still out on this question where some researchers believe CBD attaches to a third, as yet undiscovered, receptor. Others are of the opinion that the endocannabinoids aren’t broken down.

What we do know is that research suggests CBD has been shown to alleviate pain, nausea, anxiety, and more symptoms associated with numerous conditions. A theory, known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) hypothesizes that depleted levels of  endocannabinoid i.e. ECS dysfunction may give rise to certain conditions.[7]

CECD can be considered an umbrella term where several conditions feature common symptoms. These include:[8]

  • Fibromyalgia;
  • Migraine; 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS);
  • Glaucoma;
  • Seizures;
  • Arthritis and other chronic pains[9]

What’s interesting to note is that there is no official cause responsible for the above as they affect several systems, and seem resistant to many conventional treatment options out there. There have also been discoveries between ECS dysfunction and conditions like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s Disease, Anorexia, and drug addiction, proving that “opportunities for viable therapeutic treatments that focus on the endocannabinoid system provide strong justification for increasing research of the endocannabinoid system.”[10]

One thing we wholeheartedly agree on is CBD’s potential to break the opioid epidemic and other substance use disorders (SUDs) raging across the United States. Apparently SUDs cost the US more than +$740 billion a year![11]

An article published in the online psychiatry journal, Frontiers In states, “A number of studies have suggested the potential of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and other antidepressants in reducing substance (e.g., alcohol and nicotine) use via alleviating mood symptoms.”

Cannabinoids are also being included amongst possible treatments for some of the more “head scratching” conditions that have, thus far, eluded positive outcomes:[12]

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Neurological, neurodegenerative, neurodevelopmental, and psychiatric illnesses
  • Acute and chronic kidney disease
  • Autoimmune diseases

CBD is currently being used for conditions like pediatric epilepsy and asthma amongst others.

Does the ECS operate in the same way for other animals?

As mentioned above, the ECS is present in all vertebrates and some invertebrates, however, we cannot rely 100% on this data as it “can never inform us completely about the full range of psychological and physiological effects of marijuana or cannabinoids on humans” meaning CBD may affect animals in a subtle but altogether different manner.[13]

We do know that CBD treatment is becoming more popular as a therapeutic treatment for chronic pain and inflammation in our beloved animal companions.[14] Joey Hemp always reminds our readers to behave responsibly, so where your beloved furry is concerned, be aware that “CBD may cause significant and potentially dangerous drug–drug interactions when taken simultaneously with other drugs” and “CBD’s immunosuppressant effects may pose a risk for immuno-compromised animals.” Consult your vet before start in treatment.

Ultimately, the best way to sum this up is the following: “People want safe, natural and inexpensive treatments that stimulate our bodies’ ability to self-heal and help our population improve its quality of life.”[15]

*It is best to consult with a qualified professional should you wish to treat your companion or anyone else with CBD-based products.


[1] https://norml.org/library/item/introduction-to-the-endocannabinoid-system

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17369778

[3] https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-the-endocannabinoid-system-4171855

[4] https://www.uclahealth.org/cannabis/human-endocannabinoid-system

[5] https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-the-endocannabinoid-system-4171855

[6] https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-the-endocannabinoid-system-4171855

[7] https://www.healthline.com/health/endocannabinoid-system-2#deficiency

[8] https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-the-endocannabinoid-system-4171855

[9] https://www.medicaljane.com/2015/02/28/a-brief-overview-of-the-endocannabinoid-system/

[10] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128050941000071

[11] https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics

[12] https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-the-endocannabinoid-system-4171855

[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK230721/#!po=3.73134

[14] https://doi.org/10.1080/24734306.2018.1434470

[15] https://norml.org/library/item/introduction-to-the-endocannabinoid-system