The Endocannabinoid System

For many years the science and knowledge of our own physiological system, has not available to us, in the public domain. The main fact you must understand, is that all animals except for insects have an endogenous (made within the body) cannabinoid system, or endocannabinoid system (ECS). It has been found that we make our own cannabinoids, and they are similar in structure to those of the cannabis plant; further, we have receptors for these molecules. This newly discovered molecular signalling system is essential for life and helps keep us in balance as we deal with daily stress. Many studies are suggesting that a weak or over-stressed ECS may be the underlying cause of a variety of ailments, such as fibromyalgia or migraine headaches as well as auto-immune diseases.

Endocannabinoids are our body’s own form of cannabis and are involved in most of our cells and structures. They control a variety of functions in the nervous system, heart, reproductive and immune systems. Endocannabinoid messengers help the cells communicate. Typically they protect our good cells while killing the bad ones like cancer cells.

A very basic way of looking at it is like this: the body creates endocannabinoids to regulate and modulate its own system, when we introduce cannabinoids from cannabis; we are effectually putting the system into overdrive, by increasing the amount of cannabinoid presence.

In all animals the nervous system is made of the same components – large numbers of nerve cells carrying electrical signals. And wherever the cells meet these signals are passed to a receptor in the next cell by a chemical messenger called a neurotransmitter. Inside the brain there are different types of neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin. All animals from rodents to fish, to elephants, to humans have inherited this basic structure, but hundreds of millions of years ago some primitive invertebrates evolved an innovation to this system.

Despite the medical establishment’s ignorance of cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system, one thing that is understood is that cannabinoid receptors — capable of accommodating both cannabinoids produced internally and also those obtained from “outside” sources, like marijuana or other plants — are the most common type of receptors in the human body. There are two types of cannabinoid receptors in humans: CB1 sites, which are found primarily in the nervous system and glands, and CB2, which populate the immune system and related organs


The CB1 receptors are found mainly on neurons in the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system, but are also present in other organs and tissues including immune cells, the spleen, adrenal and pituitary glands, heart, lungs, and parts of the reproductive, urinary, and gastrointestinal tracts. The CB1 receptors are abundant in the cerebral cortex, basal ganglia, cerebellum, hippocampus, rostral ventromedial medulla, certain nuclei of the thalamus and amygdala, and dorsal primary afferent spinal cord regions, which helps explain the role of cannabinoids in motor control, memory processing, and pain modulation. The low number of CB1 receptors in the brain stem may help explain the absence of cannabis overdoses due to the depression of respirations.

The CB2 receptors are primarily found in immune cells, among them leukocytes, the spleen, and tonsils. There are cannabinoid receptors throughout our bodies, and we have more receptors for cannabinoids than for any other substance.

The endocannabinoids bind with the cannabinoid receptors and activate the receptors as full agonists or partial agonists, or they can dock in a receptor and act as a neutral antagonist, who does not activate the receptor, or as an inverse agonist, in which case it deactivates the receptor.

The endocannabinoids are not stored in the body, but are synthesized and released on demand. The activation of these endocannabinoids influences other chemical reactions, producing a cascade effect. The ECS helps in maintaining homeostasis and has the ability to move back and forth across the synapses between cells and may exert either an excitation or inhibition of activity.

The endocannabinoid system is essential to life and it relates messages that affect how we relax, eat, sleep, forget and protect.

To understand that this system of life exists within your body and brain is to understand the remarkable and various therapeutic applications of cannabis.

Suggested Reading

Centonze, D., Finazzi-Agro, A., Bernardi, G., & Maccarrone, M. (2007). The endocannabinoid system in targeting inflammatory neurodegenerative diseases. Trends in Pharmacological Science, 28(4) 180-187.

Di Marzo, V, Melck, D, Bisogno, T & De Petrocellis, L. (1998). Endocannabinoids: endogenous cannabinoid receptor ligands with neruomodulatory action. Trends in Neuroscience. 21: 521-528.

Di Marzo V. (2008). Targeting the endocannabinoid system: to enhance or reduce? Nat Rev. Drug Discov. 7:438-55.

Early phytocannabinoid chemistry to endocannabinoids and beyond

Raphael Mechoulam, Lumír O. Hanuš, Roger Pertwee & Allyn C. Howlett
Link to abstract

Endocannabinoid signalling and the deteriorating brain

Vincenzo Di Marzo, Nephi Stella & Andreas Zimmer
Link to abstract

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