Cannabis and Your Body: The Endocannabinoid System Explained

If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you already know about the healing power of cannabis—about how a plant medicine can deliver gentle, potent, and above all sustainable relief from a long list of chronic symptoms and conditions. 

But have you ever stopped to wonder how and why cannabis is so effective? For that, we have to dive into the story of one of the body’s chief regulatory networks. So without further ado, here’s the Endocannabinoid System, explained.

The Endocannabinoid System Explained: How Cannabis Interacts with a Vital Regulatory System

The Endocannabinoid System Explained

If you’ve never heard of the Endocannabinoid System, don’t feel bad. Not only is it news to most lay people, but even many doctors in the United States aren’t even aware of its existence! That’s a situation we’re working hard to correct. Because even though it was only discovered roughly 30 years ago, the Endocannabinoid System—or ECS—is now believed to be one of the most important networks in the entire body, responsible for such crucial functions as:

  • Immune response
  • Memory
  • Proper sleep function
  • Appetite and metabolism
  • Communication between cells

Because our knowledge of the ECS is still so new, it’s safe to suggest this is only a partial and growing list. 

How did we even discover the ECS? The story dates back to the 1960s when Israeli researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam first isolated the cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), the two most abundant cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Because they occur in plants, these compounds are more properly called “phytocannabinoids.” Keep that in mind as the story progresses.

Fast-forward to 1990, when an NIMH molecular biologist named Lisa Matsuda identified a cannabinoid receptor in the brains of lab rats. This marked the very beginnings of the understanding of the ECS. From there, it was a relatively short leap to the discovery of two endocannabinoids—anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol—which are cannabinoids produced by our own bodies. These endocannabinoids bind to a network of specialized receptor cells throughout the body; in other words, the ECS. 

Since then, our dawning understanding of the ECS has grown by leaps and bounds, so much so that a growing number of researchers now believe it’s the body’s single most important regulatory and signaling network. And as Dr. Mechoulam himself put it: 

“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.”

The Endocannabinoid System Explained: How Cannabis “Speaks the Body’s Language”

The Endocannabinoid System Explained

So, by now you should have an understanding of the importance of the Endocannabinoid System. But that’s only half of the equation: What makes cannabis such a uniquely powerful and yet sustainable medication is that it—in a very real sense—is “speaking the same language” as our body’s own regulatory network. 

It’s hard to overstate how impactful this is. At the risk of oversimplifying the complex mechanisms of pharmacology, many medicines work by turning on or turning off various physiological responses. By comparison, cannabis tends to modulate those responses, working with them in partnership rather than as a simple “on” or “off” command. An example would be the way the cannabinoids THC and CBD both elicit effective anti-inflammatory responses to pain and injuries, making them excellent choices for the long-term care of sore and aching muscles and joints.

As we hinted earlier, our understanding of the ECS has been delayed somewhat, both by centuries of entrenched medical theories and by the generalized bias against cannabis as a medically valuable plant. Fortunately, that’s changing at an ever-increasing pace. If you encounter someone who’s dubious about cannabis’ medical potential, having the Endocannabinoid System explained to them can even make proselytizers out of skeptics!

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