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Overview of the Endocannabinoid System

From Grace and Frankie to Snoop and Martha, cannabis is suddenly the medicine of the moment in pop culture. But as any cannabis fan knows, it’s actually one of humankind’s oldest medicines, its use dating back literally thousands of years. Of course, the ancient Chinese physicians who first prescribed medical cannabis didn’t know how this all-natural medicine interfaced with the body. To solve that particular mystery, let’s fast-forward to the 20th century when researchers first discovered the Endocannabinoid System.

What is the ECS, you ask? Only one of our most important regulatory networks! In today’s article, we’ll share everything we know about this vital (and fascinating) system of the body.

endocannabinoid system overview 

The Endocannabinoid System: A Newly Discovered Regulatory Network

The story begins in the early 1960s, when an Israeli researcher named Dr. Raphael Mechoulam was trying to tease out the secrets of cannabinoids such as CBD, sometimes described as the major “active ingredients” in cannabis. In fact, Dr. Mechoulam’s work isolated several of the most prominent cannabinoids—including THC, the cannabinoid most directly responsible for the cannabis plant’s euphoric effects.

Groundbreaking though Dr. Mechoulam’s research was, it didn’t solve the question of how THC, CBD, and the other cannabinoids interact with the body. For the answer to that question, let’s fast-forward again, this time to 1990, when a National Institute of Mental Health biologist named Lisa Matsuda made her discovery.

Matsuda’s research identified cannabis receptor cells in the brains of lab rats. This was a crucial finding: Researchers could finally pinpoint a physical point of contact between cannabis and our bodies. Broadening her research, Matsuda and her colleagues soon identified the previously unknown Endocannabinoid System. What’s more, she made a discovery that completely upended our notion of just how important medical cannabis might be.

endocannabinoid system overview

How The Endocannabinoid System Works: The Cannabis Connection

Matsuda and her colleagues discovered two endocannabinoids—cannabinoids produced by our own bodies, called anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. It turns out that these bodily chemicals are roughly similar to the ones produced by the cannabis plant. Anandamide, for instance, is in many ways analogous to THC in its euphoric, pain-killing, and other effects.

What’s the big deal? This similarity is a clue that cannabis is so effective because it’s “speaking the same language” as the body’s natural chemical signals. Some researchers believe this is a key finding on the scientific path to understanding why cannabis may help modulate our bodies’ natural responses to injury, such as eliciting effective anti-inflammatory responses to pain.

Since Matsuda’s discovery, our understanding of the Endocannabinoid System has grown by leaps and bounds. In fact, many researchers now believe it may be one of the body’s most important regulatory and signalling networks.

What’s more, we humans aren’t the only animals with endocannabinoid systems. Incredibly, many animals—from mammals and birds to sea urchins and leeches—have an Endocannabinoid System. The system and its related receptors and other cells are spread throughout the body, where they help regulate such processes as sleep, appetite, memory, mood, and more. And most remarkably of all, we have the humble cannabis plant to thank for the discovery of this crucial system! As Dr. Mechoulam—the scientist who helped jumpstart our understanding of cannabis and its natural chemicals—said:

“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.”

endocannabinoid system overview

Cannabis and Endocannabinoid Deficiency

Sometimes, the Endocannabinoid Systems don’t produce enough endocannabinoids. This is known as Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome (CECD). While research into CECD is just beginning, it’s theorized by at least one line of research as maybe being implicated in such disorders as:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Parkinson’s
  • Schizophrenia
  • Psoriasis
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammation
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • PTSD

Can cannabis help? We know that, at the very least, it’s important to keep our Endocannabinoid Systems healthy and happy.

If you’d like to learn more about how cannabis could play a role in keeping you healthy and happy, we’d love to help. Our staff is here to answer all your questions and recommend products that are right for you. As always: If you have more questions, don’t hesitate to ask. We’re here to help!

Please note that qualifying conditions vary by state, and the information relating to qualifying conditions may not apply to cannabis patients in all states.

Product availability also varies based on state program restrictions and rules, so the products discussed may not be available in all states. Be sure to check with your local Green Goods location about the products available in your state!