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The Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating balance in our body’s immune response, communication between cells, appetite and metabolism, memory, and more. In spite of the integral role this system takes on, until recently it remained an unknown part of the human body’s functions.

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a biological system composed of endocannabinoids, which are endogenous lipid-based retrograde neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors, and cannabinoid receptor proteins that are expressed throughout the mammalian central nervous system (including the brain) and peripheral nervous system. The endocannabinoid system is involved in regulating a variety of physiological and cognitive processes including fertility, pregnancy during pre- and postnatal development, appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory, and in mediating the pharmacological effects of cannabis.

The ECS is also involved in mediating some of the physiological and cognitive effects of voluntary physical exercise in humans and other animals, such as contributing to exercise-induced euphoria as well as modulating locomotor activity and motivational salience for rewards. In humans, the plasma concentration of certain endocannabinoids (i.e., anandamide) have been found to rise during physical activity; since endocannabinoids can effectively penetrate the blood–brain barrier, it has been suggested that anandamide, along with other euphoriant neurochemicals, contributes to the development of exercise-induced euphoria in humans, a state colloquially referred to as a runner’s high.

Two primary endocannabinoid receptors have been identified: CB1, first cloned in 1990; and CB2, cloned in 1993. CB1 receptors are found predominantly in the brain and nervous system, as well as in peripheral organs and tissues, and are the main molecular target of the endocannabinoid ligand (binding molecule), anandamide, as well as its mimetic phytocannabinoid, THC. One other main endocannabinoid is 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) which is active at both cannabinoid receptors, along with its own mimetic phytocannabinoid, CBD. 2-AG and CBD are involved in the regulation of appetite, immune system functions and pain management.

Functions that are known to be affected by the ECS:

  • Inflammation
  • Memory
  • Stress
  • Sleep
  • Organ function
  • Cardiovascular function
  • Energy
  • Immune function
  • Appetite and digestion
  • Psychiatric disease
  • Metabolism

The endocannabinoid system is comprised of a collection of receptors, specialized lipids and enzymes that help maintain basic functions and respond to illness. Although research is ongoing, scientists even believe that the ECS helps balance and regulate proper homeostasis, which is the body’s ability to stay functioning at its optimal condition to help keep you balanced and healthy. Through various actions, endocannabinoids are thought to help manage multiple medical conditions and a variety of symptoms.

Diseases, conditions and symptoms known to be managed by the ECS:

  • Anxiety
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer or cancer treatment symptoms
  • Chronic pain
  • Epilepsy
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis
  • Glaucoma
  • HIV or AIDS symptoms
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscle spasms or pain
  • Nausea
  • Nerve pain
  • Sleep disorders

When activated by cannabinoids, the cannabinoid receptors are known to change the way the body regulates.

There are two types of cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body, called CB1 and CB2.

CB1 receptors

Where they are:

Mostly located in the brain, but also found in the central and peripheral nervous systems, intestines and in the liver.

What they do:

Affect memory, appetite, sleep, stress and pain. Responsible for the psychoactive effect of medical cannabis.

CB2 receptors

Where they are:

Mostly located in the immune system.

What they do:

Responsible for the anti-inflammatory effect of cannabis and can help reduce inflammation and tissue injury.


Cannabinoids are molecule compounds that interact with cannabinoid receptors and can be found both naturally within the body and also within a variety of plants. Endocannabinoids are cannabinoids created by the body to help regulate and balance the various systems.

Cannabinoids activate the endocannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 located within different parts of the body.

Different types of cannabinoids are known to cause different types of responses within the body. Science has identified at least 113 cannabinoids, the most well-known are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol)

It’s the most recognised cannabinoid because it’s best known for its psychoactive abilities, causing the sensation that makes you feel ‘high’. According to neurologists, the therapeutic effects of THC include analgesia (including neuropathic pain), muscle relaxant, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, antiemetic, appetite stimulant, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), antidepressant and sedative.

CBD (Cannabidiol)

CBD is getting more attention in recent years, due to its apparent medical benefits without the psychoactive effects found in THC. This is because CBD doesn’t ignite the CB1 receptors that THC does. Some of the symptoms known to be alleviated by CBD include nausea, pain, anxiety, depression and inflammation. More research on the benefits of CBD is currently in the works, including studies on how CBD affects schizophrenia, epilepsy and breast cancer.

Each strain of cannabis has a specific percentage of THC and a ratio of THC to CBD. The higher the THC, the more you’ll most likely feel the psychoactive effects. CBD helps reduce some of the unwanted effects of THC, such as rapid heart rate, sleepiness, anxiety and confusion. Which is why it’s important to find a strain with a balance that suits your specific needs.

CBN (Cannabinol)

As its name suggests, CBN is related to THC, the compound being in fact a metabolite of tetrahydrocannabinol. This means that cannabinol is obtained from THC, through a process that involves both natural and special treatments.

THCa, the acid form of the psychoactive cannabinoid, is converted to CBNa when exposed to air for a long period. In the presence of air, THCa can lose hydrogen molecules and undergo oxidation, the result being the acid form of CBN. This compound is then treated with heat and UV light and converted to CBN.

The third best-known cannabinoid after CBD and THC, CBN is mildly psychoactive and is thought to act as a natural antiemetic and anticonvulsant agent. It is known to also be responsible for the sedative effects of some varieties of the cannabis plant, allowing it to be used as an effective sleep aid over harsh and addictive pharmaceutical medications.

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