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Why the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is an amazing and vital system found throughout the body. It plays a crucial role in maintaining balance and homeostasis (the body’s ability to maintain internal stability), influencing a wide range of bodily functions.

diagram of endocannbinoid system's connections to major body systems
close up view of neural synapse

The Endocannbinoid System Structure and Function

The endocannabinoid system is a complex cell-signaling system found in the bodies of all vertebrates, including humans.

Discovered in 1988, it was named after cannabis because the plant’s cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, were crucial in its discovery.

The term “endocannabinoid” derives from “endo,” meaning produced within the body, and “cannabinoid,” which refers to compounds found in the cannabis plant.

The ECS consists of three main parts:

  • Endocannabinoids: There are many naturally occurring compounds produced by the body that act as messenger chemicals, including anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).

  • Receptors: The ECS has several different types of receptors. The two primary types of receptors are known as CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are more abundant in the immune system and peripheral tissues.

Messenger chemicals trigger these receptors, much like a key fitting into a lock. They can either activate or shut down a receptor’s response, depending on the kind of messenger chemical.

  • Enzymes: Specific enzymes in the nerve cells break down endocannabinoids for reuse. This breakdown prevents prolonged signaling.

diagram of the human endocannabinoid system

What does the Endocannabinoid System do?

The primary role of the ECS is to maintain homeostasis, keeping things in balance. The cannabinoid receptor is the most abundant receptor in the brain, especially in areas of the brain responsible for motor coordination, cognition, memory, emotional regulation, and reward.

A key role of your endocannabinoid system is to manage stress. In response to stress, our body mobilizes this system’s chemical messengers to help regulate our response to stress. If we suddenly experience a threat to us, our body goes into high alert mode to respond to the threat – the so-called “fight or flight response.” However, once we are removed from the threat, our body needs to turn the stress response back off.

This burst of chemical signals from the endocannabinoid system that occurs in response to stress is critical for the recovery phase — to bring your body and brain back into balance.

graph of body functions governed by the endocannabinoid system

The ECS achieves this by regulating many physiological processes, including:

Learn more about the ECS

FAQ: What is the Endocannabinoid System?

Take a peek at a fun and educational whiteboard video that helps explain the Endocannabinoid System without the 'MedSpeak'!

cross-section view of human body
Guide to the Endocannabinoid System

Download our Introductory Guide PDF to learn essential information about your endocannabinoid system.

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