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The journey cannabis takes us on is all thanks to our endocannabinoid system. It’s a recent discovery in the grand scheme of research, but confirmation of its existence is a key piece of the puzzle. Read on for everything endocannabinoid system 101: What it is, what it does, and the role it plays in helping us stay cool, calm, collected, and so much more.

This visual guide to the Endocannabinoid System 101 lists the various bodily functions the ECS is related to, including metabolism, memory function, good sleep, stress management, and nervous system health.

Defining the endocannabinoid system

The endogenous cannabinoid system, also called the endocannabinoid system or simply your ECS, is a complicated network of receptors and chemicals found in all mammals, including humans. Your ECS is everywhere, from head to toe, influencing body, mood, and mind. We don’t yet fully understand how it works, but for all its mystery, we do know it’s essential to how your body perceives pain, your sleep quality, how you process memories, your emotional state, and your immunity — and that’s just the start of a long list of key functions the ECS is theorized to affect.

What are the components of the ECS?

The ECS is primarily composed of two parts: a network of receptors, and chemicals our bodies produce to stimulate those receptors, called endocannabinoids. There are also enzymes that break down and “recycle” endocannabinoids once our bodies are done using them, called fatty acid amide hydrolase and monoacylglycerol acid lipase.

Researchers know of two main receptor types: the CB1 receptor and the CB2 receptor. CB1 receptors are primarily clustered in the central nervous system (CNS) — that’s your brain and spinal cord — while CB2 receptors are found in immune cells and your peripheral nervous system (PNS), which carries information from your glands, organs, skin, and other parts of your body to the central nervous system. Two endocannabinoids have been identified so far: Anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol.

What exactly does the endocannabinoid system do?

The ECS plays a key role in maintaining homeostasis, or a state of equilibrium, in our bodies. That can be physical, mental, and emotional. Researchers have identified connections between the ECS and these processes so far:

  • Pain perception
  • The immune system
  • Metabolism
  • Memory function
  • Good sleep
  • Stress
  • Digestion and appetite
  • Organ function, including the liver and cardiovascular system
  • Skin health
  • The nervous system (both CNS and PNS)
  • Reproductive health
  • And more

So, what does this have to do with cannabis?

It’s not a coincidence that endocannabinoids made by our bodies and phytocannabinoids from plants share a similar name. Cannabis compounds we know and love — THC, CBD, CBN, and all their cousins — share many similar properties with endocannabinoids. Their names are a nod to that: Researchers observed that THC binds to CB1 receptors just like the anandamide our bodies make.

CBD modulates these receptors, influencing how other phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids interact with it (And that’s why you don’t feel as high when you consume cannabis products with even or higher ratios of CBD to THC). So when we consume cannabis, whether by inhaling or ingesting or putting it on our skin, we’re introducing phytocannabinoids to our ECS.

When was the ECS discovered?

A series of discoveries in the late 1980s and early ‘90s led to defining the ECS, decades after famed cannabis researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam first isolated delta-9 THC. The discovery of the CB1 receptor in 1988, anandamide in 1992, the CB2 receptor in 1993, and 2-AG in 1995 all contribute to our current understanding of the endocannabinoid system and how it works.

Learn more about the ECS: Your hottest questions answered

The more you know about your ECS, the more you understand the effect your favorite cannabis products can have on your body and mind. Keep going to learn more.

What’s the difference between CB1 and CB2 receptors?

Both CB1 and CB2 receptors are found throughout your body, but they’re found in different clusters in different areas of your body. You’ll find more CB1 receptors in your brain, spine, and throughout the central nervous system, where CB2 receptors are primarily found in immune cells, organs, skin, and other areas of your body. There’s plenty of crossovers, too — you’ll find CB1 receptors where there are mainly clusters of CB2 receptors and vice-versa.

Have studies been conducted on the ECS?

Researchers know that the endocannabinoid system exists, but there’s still a lot to learn about how it works. The scientific community’s interest in the ECS continues to grow as we learn more about how endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids behave.

Is endocannabinoid deficiency real?

You may have heard about “endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome,” a condition theorized to affect neurotransmitters and your body’s ability to regulate certain processes. However, the condition is just a theory. It has not been studied or researched extensively.

Is the endocannabinoid system named after cannabis?

Yes! The discovery of THC, CBD, and other phytocannabinoids came well before the discovery of the ECS. THC was first isolated and its structure defined in 1964, while CBD was first identified as early as 1940, although researchers didn’t focus on it at the time. The first recorded discovery of CB1 receptors, conducted in 1988 by researchers at the St. Louis University Medical School, came because researchers took note of how THC bonded to those receptors.

Do terpenes influence your ECS?

Terpenes don’t act the same way that cannabinoids do in your body, but there’s one notable exception. Beta-caryophyllene, the terpene that gives certain cannabis cultivars its earthy and peppery scent, has been observed to bind to CB2 receptors.

Are endocannabinoids found in cannabis?

Close, but not quite. Cannabis contains phytocannabinoids, which behave like endocannabinoids but are sourced from cannabis. Endocannabinoids are made by your body.

The endocannabinoid system: Your cannabis co-pilot

There’s science behind why cannabis uplifts us: your ECS maps out the journey before you even take flight. By guiding how cannabinoids flow through our bodies and influence a wide range of functions, the ECS has all the tools to ensure we arrive at our destination. And no matter which destination you want to reach, there’s an option for you. Want to learn more? Come visit us at The Travel Agency to keep the conversation going.

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