Endocannabinoid System: Significance & Purpose

What Is The ECS – An Introduction

No one knew about a whole system in our body until the late 20th century! Incredible isn’t it? 

What’s even more interesting is that it was discovered only after scientists were able to understand and isolate certain chemical compounds in marijuana – a plant mostly used for recreational purposes!

It was only in 1964, when an Israeli scientist, Raphael Mechoulam, first identified and isolated THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, a psychoactive chemical component (now known as a cannabinoid) of cannabis group of plants. It was about the same time that he also isolated CBD

Isolation of these components was only the first step towards the realization of the existence of an entire biological system in all living beings with vertebrae, which we have now come to know of as the endocannabinoid system (ECS) [1, 2]

As you may have understood, the name of this biological system found in our bodies was derived from the plant – cannabis – owing to the role it played in its discovery and further research on its workings. 

In the words of Mechoulam, an organic chemist and a former professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, “By using a plant that has been around for thousands of years, we discovered a new physiological system of immense importance. We wouldn’t have been able to get there if we had not looked at the plant.”

Short History On How ECS Was Discovered

Following Mechoulam’s discovery, the next few decades saw gradual advancements in this area, including:

  • 1988: Allyn Howlett and William Devane first discovered the presence of cannabinoid (CB) receptors in the brain of a rat and also realized that their number was even greater than other neurotransmitter receptors.
  • Scientists developed a synthetic form of THC and used it to map CB receptors in the brain. They found out that these were most prevalent in areas of the brain and nervous system that control the mental and physiological processes, such as memory, cognition, motor coordination, appetite, emotions, etc. 
  • 1990: Lisa Matsuda and her colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health made public that they had managed to segregate the DNA sequence that determines THC-sensitivity in a rat’s brain. 
  • Soon after, they created genetically modified rats, which could not be impacted by the cannabinoid due to the absence of the specific genome. 
  • 1993: The second cannabinoid receptor – CB2 – was discovered as being a part of the immune and nervous systems. They were mostly found in large numbers in the intestines, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells, and the reproductive organs. [The previously discovered receptor was by now called CB1.]  
  • 1992: The existence of endocannabinoids (or endogenous cannabinoids – cannabinoids found in living beings with vertebrae) was first established. Raphael Mechoulam and NIMH researchers William Devane and Dr. Lumir Hanus discovered the first endocannabinoid, and named it Anandamide (C22H37NO2), after the Sanskrit word for bliss, Ananda, as it causes euphoria much as THC does. 

This answered a question that had been bugging scientists so far: Why would we have a system in our body that only be influenced by external elements. So, we now know that chemical compounds that can be found in cannabis can be naturally produced within our bodies as well!

  • 1995: Mechoulam’s team of researchers discovered the existence of a second endocannabinoid – 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) that interacts with both CB1 and CB2 receptors.

To know more about the history of how CBD was isolated and its effects studied, read History of Cannabidiol (CBD) – The Birth of an alternative medicine.

ECS: Purpose & Functions

The Endocannabinoid System comprises: 

  1. Endocannabinoids (cannabinoids produced by our body). So far, the only two endocannabinoids identified by the experts are anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG).  
  2. Cannabinoid receptors (found in our nervous system as well as different parts of our body) that interact with endocannabinoids and naturally available cannabinoids (like phytocannabinoids such as those found in cannabis). The two main EC receptors are CB1 (found mostly in the brain and the central nervous system) and CB2 (found mostly in the peripheral nervous system, especially the immune cells). 
  3. Enzymes that break down cannabinoids (found inside our body or in nature) after their work is done. The two main enzymes responsible for doing this are fatty acid amide hydrolase (that breaks down AEA) and monoacylglycerol acid lipase (that breaks down 2-AG)

These three groups of chemicals work in tandem to form the Endocannabinoid System that is responsible for several physiological processes. 

But, the main purpose of this entire system – that covers most of your body—is to maintain homeostasis.

If you haven’t come across the term, homeostasis is simply the body’s constant attempt to keep an internal balance – physically, mentally, or chemically – irrespective of the changes in the external environment. 

When something within your body goes off balance, the ECS goes on an overdrive to re-establish the balance. Remember the little signals you get when you’re hungry, scared or running a fever? It is your ECS at work, telling what needs to be done while keeping you going while you take care of it. 

In other words, apart from sending signals to your brain, prompting you to take action, it helps keep your system running while you take care of things. 

You must have heard your parents often tell you, “Let your body heal by itself.” They are right in a way, although they may not always know why. While medications help us, it is the ECS that helps restore the balance. 

According to scientific studies [5] carried out on the ECS, it influences several functions, including: 

  • Appetite and Digestion
  • Metabolism
  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammation and other immune system responses
  • Cardiovascular System 
  • Temperature regulation
  • Motor Control
  • Muscle Formation
  • Bone Growth
  • Liver 
  • Reproductive System 
  • Mood
  • Cognition and Memory
  • Sleep
  • Stress
  • Skin function
  • Nerve functions

All these functions ensure homeostasis, which is essential for healthy living and even our survival. 

Since cannabis products have been found to be efficient ECS stimulants, they are increasingly being used for the treatment of a wide and diverse variety of ailments. 

Stimulating The ECS WITHOUT Cannabis 

We often hear of a wide range of health conditions that one plant – cannabis – can help treat, cure or manage, without any serious side effects

Does it make you wonder if there are any other external sources of cannabinoids or natural agents that can stimulate the endocannabinoid system? 

There are quite a few endocannabinoid-enhancing foods available to anyone willing to look. 

Foods that can enhance the ECS

  • A healthy balance of the essential fatty acids, like omega-3 and omega-6 [6]. Usually, our diet contains more of the latter and less of the former. So, increase the intake of:
  • Hemp seeds and hemp oil
  • Flax seeds (grind at home in a coffee grinder) and flax oil
  • Chia seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Sardines and anchovies
  • Eggs (pasture-fed or omega-3 enriched only)
  • Chocolate(Dark)
  • Tea or Herbs

And reduce the consumption of: 

  • Safflower oil 
  • Sunflower oil 
  • Corn oil 
  • Soy oil 
  • Meat, especially red meat
  • Poultry-bred chicken 
  • Poultry Eggs

Activities that can boost the ECS

Stress obstructs the smooth functioning of the ECS. Embracing a lifestyle and activities that bust stress helps boost the EC receptors and enhance a person’s wellbeing. 

Some activities that do that are: 

  • Yoga
  • Social Interaction
  • Games and having fun
  • Aromatherapy 
  • Head & Body Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Meditation & Breathing Exercises

The easiest thing to do is to, basically, do anything and everything that makes you feel happy, without giving in to addictions. 

Recent Research Links on The Endocannabinoid System 

  1. An introduction to the endogenous cannabinoid system; Biological Psychiatry; Oct 30, 2015; Hui-Chen Lu1,2 and Ken Mackie; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4789136/
  2. Endocannabinoid system: An overview of its potential in current medical practice; Neuroendocrinology Letters; 2009; Mouslech Z and Valla V; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19675519
  3. The role of the endocannabinoid system in the regulation of endocrine function and in the control of energy balance in humans; Postepy Hig Med Dosw (Online); 2007; Komorowski J and Stepień H; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17369778 
  4. Brain cannabinoids in chocolate; Nature; August 22, 1996; di Tomaso E, Beltramo M, Piomelli D; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8751435 
  5. Cannabinoid Receptors and the Endocannabinoid System: Signaling and Function in the Central Nervous System; International Journal of Molecular Science; March 13, 2018; Shenglong Zou and Ujendra Kumar; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5877694/ 
  6. Polyunsaturated fatty acids and endocannabinoids in health and disease; Nutritional Neuroscience; July 7, 2017; Freitas HR1, Isaac AR1, Malcher-Lopes R2, Diaz BL3, Trevenzoli IH4, De Melo Reis RA; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28686542 
  7. Biochanin A, a naturally occurring inhibitor of fatty acid amide hydrolase; British Journal of Pharmacology; June 2010; L Thors, JJ Burston, BJ Alter, MK McKinney, BF Cravatt, RA Ross, RG Pertwee, RW Gereau, JL Wiley, and CJ Fowler; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2931556/ 
  8. The CB receptor-mediated endocannabinoid signaling and NGF: the novel targets of curcumin; Neurochemical Research; February 7, 2012; Hassanzadeh P and Hassanzadeh A; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22311129 
  9. (−)-β-Caryophyllene, a CB2 Receptor-Selective Phytocannabinoid, Suppresses Motor Paralysis and Neuroinflammation in a Murine Model of Multiple Sclerosis; International Journal of Molecular Sciences; April 1, 2017; Thaís Barbosa Alberti,1 Wagner Luiz Ramos Barbosa,2 José Luiz Fernandes Vieira,2 Nádia Rezende Barbosa Raposo,3 and Rafael Cypriano Dutra; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5412277/ 
  10. Phytocannabinoids beyond the Cannabis plant – do they exist? British Journal of Pharmacology; 2010 June; Jürg Gertsch,1 Roger G Pertwee,2 and Vincenzo Di Marzo; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2931553/ 
  11. Care and Feeding of the Endocannabinoid System: A Systematic Review of Potential Clinical Interventions that Upregulate the Endocannabinoid System; PLoS One; March 12, 2014; John M. McPartland, Geoffrey W. Guy, and Vincenzo Di Marzo; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951193/ 
  12. Effects of diisononyl phthalate (DiNP) on the endocannabinoid and reproductive systems of male gilthead sea bream (Sparus aurata) during the spawning season; Archives of Toxicology; January 2, 2019; Forner-Piquer I, Mylonas CC, Fakriadis I, Papadaki M, Piscitelli F, Di Marzo V, Calduch-Giner J, Pérez-Sánchez J, Carnevali O; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30600365 
  13. Disruption of the gonadal endocannabinoid system in zebrafish exposed to diisononyl phthalate; Environmental Pollution; May 21, 2018; Forner-Piquer I1, Santangeli S1, Maradonna F, Rabbito A, Piscitelli F, Habibi HR, Di Marzo V, Carnevali O; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29793103 
Author Details
Senior Editor & Researcher , Greenthevoteok
Matt Hansel is a Medical Practitioner, who has been writing and researching about cannabis since 2014.  His popular quotes which we like are: \"Don\'t use CBD oil for a cure, use it as a precaution\"  \"CBD should be considered as any other vitamin supplement and your body needs it!\"