The Endocannabinoid System – Is it really related to Cannabis?

The Endocannabinoid System – Is it really related to Cannabis?

If you’re a long-term medical marijuana patient and advocate, you may have heard or read about the endocannabinioid system.  [Originally termed the Endogenous Cannabinoid System; abbreviated ECS].

If your individual research hasn’t taken you that far, don’t feel left out. This field is vastly underpublicized and is not yet commonly featured in medical school curriculums.

So, it’s likely that you’re about to learn something “ground-breaking” and really fascinating about the human body. Something that helps explain how and why the body responds to cannabis and why cannabis has mainstreamed as a viable, accepted medical treatment for so many ailments and medical conditions.



The Biology (over) Simplified

Our bodies have an internal molecular signaling system [the ECS] that participates in regulating a wide range of biological functions or processes; these include mood, “brain reward systems”, appetite, sensing pain, learning movement skills, memory, drug addiction, glucose metabolism, energy balance, and regulation of the nervous system.    In fact, it’s been suggested that the ECS is the most important system in our bodies for creating and sustaining our health!

Keep in mind, this a very complex biological and physiological topic. And this explanation is intended to very simple. So, toward that end, the two words to focus on in order to gain a fundamental understanding of the ECS are “signaling system.”

This signaling molecular system in our bodies is like a traffic light when you’re driving. As you approach an intersection, the color of the light tells you what to do – proceed through it, slow down and prepare to stop, or stop all together. The traffic light’s color is the signal that triggers your response to it.

The ECS is based upon similar signals in our bodies called “ligands”, which are molecules or atoms. Ligands are essentially signals produced then released in response to a cell’s shift from a negative internal charge to a more positive charge. (When the cell undergoes an electrical charge or responds to an electrical impulse).

When that happens, i.e., when ligands are released, they bind or interact with receptors in – or on – target cells. ECs, short for endocannabinoids, are (or act as) the receptors.  The ECS involves two main ligands (with very long scientific names) that bind to two main cannabinoid receptors on the blood vessel wall (CB1 and CB2) in order to produce dilation of the blood vessels (a response).

Note: Several other ECs – other than CB1 and CB2 – have been identified but their roles and functions are not yet determined. CB1 and CB2 are sometimes noted as CB1R and CB2R; the R stands for receptor.

One other point of interest, research is showing that our cells don’t have a “supply” of ECs on hand. They are actually produced by our cells on an as-needed, on-demand basis. (This helps explain how cannabis comes into play; detailed a bit later in this article.)

As a very elementary summary, because of its “on-demand” characteristic, the ECS is a mediator; it balances things that are out of balance throughout our bodies, if and as the need arises. If we have too much of something, the ECS lessens it, if we don’t have enough of something, the ECS increases it.

Note: Even though this field of study is just beginning to emerge, substantial information and research is accessible online that clarifies, supports, and expands upon the basics that are presented here. So, if you’re committed to learning more about medical marijuana and its relationship to the ECS, there’s a great deal of encouraging information and scientific research available to further your understanding.



Are endocannabinoids and the ECS really named after cannabis? 

One of the first questions that comes to mind upon seeing or hearing the word “endocannabinoid” is: Which came first – the cannabis plant or the “cannabis-like” signaling and receptor system in our bodies?

Even though the name hints that the cannabis plant came first, the fact is that the ECS is an ancient internal system that began to evolve when sponges were the most complex life form (reportedly over 600 million years ago).

The cannabis plant – on the other hand – has (only) been around for thousands of years. However, it wasn’t until 1964 that scientists first isolated THC and began to trace its effects; this research was expanded in the 80s. Essentially, by studying the metabolic pathways of THC, scientists inadvertently discovered the ECS in our bodies.  This triggered the ongoing endocannabinoid research that continues to this day and will continue well into the future.



The Cannabis-ECS Connection

As a quick review, the three main cannabinoids in cannabis are:

  • THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)
  • CBD (cannabidiol)
  • CBN (cannabinol)

Because these cannabinoids are chemically similar to the endocannabinoids in our bodies, “introducing” cannabis into the body can produce some of the same responses that ECs produce. In other words, as suggested earlier, cannabis can prompt the particular biological functions/responses that ECs produce because, in a sense, cannabis “mimics” the chemical composition of ECs in our bodies. 


Note: There are many other substances that also interact similarly with the ECS but this discussion is focused solely on cannabinoids.



How do endocannabinoids and the endocannobinoid system relate to health and disease?  

Because this is a new field of study, and even though much of the current research available is supported and promising, some areas remain suggestive. However, here is a sampling of what the most current and consistent animal and human studies on ECs (CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors in particular) and the ECS have found.

BioregulationThe Immune System

ECs play a key role in bioregulation, which means regulating the biological processes in the body.  The most important biological process is our immune system.

Conventional medicines are mainly for reducing the symptoms of a disease rather than helping the body heal itself. But bioregulation involves more natural, organic substances – like vitamins, minerals, and herbs – to help the body regulate and heal itself, in this case, strengthen the immune system.


Pain is well-accepted and established as an important “target” for ECs therapy. Both CB1R and CB2R have been accepted by the ECS research community for their properties and activity that alleviates pain and reduces inflammation.

Chronic Stress

The ECS regulates the release of stress responses, which – unless we’re in a life-saving situation – is bad for our health. Referred to as the “central mediator” of responding to stress, the ECS plays a major role in altering our stress responses that affect our mood and our abilities to think and process information.


Warning: This particular finding is the only one that shows a potential negative health benefit of an excessive amount of CB1R. This is rooted in CB1R’s important role in the body’s energy balance.

CB1R activation increases appetite (consumption of food) while lessening efficient energy metabolism. This is a recipe for obesity and while it’s still uncertain if there is a direct connection between the ECS and obesity, it appears that when CB1R is over-activated it can lead to the causes of obesity – in terms we can all understand – overeating and under-exercising.



The Gastrointestinal System

All the functions of the gastrointestinal system are influenced by the ECS. One example showing this relationship is that in the 19th century, cannabis was the go-to treatment for cholera patients suffering from intense diarrhea.


When it comes to most cancers, both laboratory studies and controlled environment studies of living organisms in their natural living environment (in animals) have shown that marijuana (cannabis, cannabinoids) and endocannabinoids share the following “behaviors” or characteristics:

They both prevent or slow the spread of cells, particularly malignant cells.  (Technically, this property is defined as antiproliferative.)

They change the form or spread of cancer cells from the initial site to another part of the body. (Technically, this property is defined as antimetastatic.)

They hinder the development or progression of cancer. (Technically, this property is defined as proapoptotic.)

Note: Today, the use of medical marijuana in cancer treatments is limited to pain and nausea but future studies may show the potential benefits of cannabinoid cancer therapy.

Furthermore, in addition to the above diseases, conditions, and biological processes, research has also made inroads in showing the biological relationship and the resulting therapeutic effects between CB1R and CB2R and the liver, the reproductive system, and the skeletal system.



But remember: This research is still new – in its relative infancy. The good news is that this promising new field continues to be investigated and new findings will consistently be released.

The better news is that at this particular time we have just enough information and documentation on the ECS to begin to grasp a biological basis for our body’s response to cannabis as a medicinal treatment for a wide range of ailments and conditions.

From these rather new discoveries, all of us engaged in medical marijuana education, treatments and applications – from skeptics and opponents to advocates, care-providers, and patients – are provided with a biological explanation for how and why medical marijuana continues to be validated as a practical and effective medical option.

As part of our commitment to medical marijuana patients and the greater communities we serve, Allied Wellness Center is devoted to staying current with all medical marijuana research as findings are reported. We see this as a cornerstone of our identity as a premiere, professionally reputable, patient-focused Michigan Medical Marijuana Provisioning Center.

Rebecca J. Ensign

Community Relations Coordinator