What is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

and why is it important?

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a very important role in the human body for our survival. This is due to its ability to play a critical role in maintaining the homeostasis of the human body, which encompasses the brain, endocrine, and immune system, to name a few. ECS is a unique system in multiple dimensions.

To begin with, it is a retrograde system functioning post- to pre-synapse, allowing it to be a “master regulator” in the body. Secondly, it has a very wide scope of influence due to an abundance of cannabinoid receptors located anywhere from immune cells to neurons. Finally, cannabinoids are rapidly synthesized and degraded, so they do not stay in the body for very long in high amounts, possibly enabling cannabinoid therapy to be a safer alternative to traditional pharmaceutical medications.

ECS Fast Facts

  • In 1988, the first cannabinoid receptor in the human body, CB1, was discovered. Four years later, a second receptor, CB2, was discovered.
  • In 1992, scientists and researchers discovered endocannabinoids like 2-AG, 2-AGE, DEA, and NADA. These scientific discoveries gave light into the complex metabolic pathways and interactions between phytocannabinoids (plant derived cannabinoids) and endocannabinoids (cannabinoids produced internally within the body). This molecular signaling system was called The Endocannabinoid System, and was felt to be present in all mammals.
  • Scientists found that the body produces its own cannabinoids, such as2-AG, 2-AGE, DEA, and that these endocannabinoids work by stimulating cannabinoid receptors.
  • This biochemical system of sophisticated compounds, their receptors, and signaling pathways in now known as the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).
  • The ECS is one of the most ubiquitous systems in the human body, with the cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 abundantly located throughout the brain, nervous system, and the periphery of the body.
  • This system is involved in regulating a variety of physiological processes including movement, mood, memory, appetite, and pain, to name a few, and functions to maintain homeostasis, or balance.

Endocannabinoids and Their Effect on the Human Body

The ECS is present nearly everywhere in the human body and functions by maintaining the homeostasis of the human body (Alger, 2013), defined as “any self-regulating process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival. If homeostasis is successful, life continues; if unsuccessful, disaster or death ensues. The stability attained is actually a dynamic equilibrium, in which continuous change occurs yet relatively uniform conditions prevail”. This is partially achieved through a negative feedback loop which works by the activation of a postsynaptic neuron synthesizing and releasing the endocannabinoids as they target various cannabinoid (CB) receptors. CB1 is a dominant receptor in the brain and central nervous system, responsible for signaling to the rest of the ECS once influenced by cannabinoids. CB2 is a second receptor, mostly located in the immune and peripheral systems.

There are multiple known endocannabinoids that play a role in the ECS. All of them seem to play a role in anti-proliferative, anti-inflammatory, and anti-metastatic effects (Madia & Daeninck, 2016). Additionally, it appears that they have a role in neurotransmitter, immune system, and mitochondrial function. Researchers say that this system helps regulate many functions in humans such as:

  • Appetite and digestion
  • Metabolism
  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammation and other immune system responses
  • Mood
  • Learning and memory
  • Motor control
  • Sleep
  • Cardiovascular system function
  • Muscle formation
  • Bone remodeling and growth
  • Liver function
  • Reproductive system function
  • Stress
  • Skin and nerve function

In summary, the ECS comprises a vast network of chemical signals and cellular receptors that are located throughout our brains and bodies. This system is involved in regulating a variety of physiological processes and functions to maintain homeostasis, or balance. To stimulate these receptors, our bodies produce molecules called endocannabinoids, which have a structural similarity to molecules in the cannabis plant. The cannabis plant, which humans have been using for about 5,000 years, essentially works its effect by the phytocannabinoids, acting similar to endogenous endocanninbinoids, modulating this ancient cellular machinery.

Keep Learning

With each individual supported by their endocannabinoid system, we know CBD and other cannabinoids act as a means to keep the ECS in balance and function at its prime. Understanding how and why the body harmoniously interacts with this system will help guide you to better sustainable health!

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