by James Han
The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is a complex nerve cell signaling system that’s thought to help support our bodies’ normal functioning, from our organs to the central nervous system and much more. Though it is a relatively recent discovery and still being studied extensively, scientists have identified it to be a key player in our body’s ability to restore a dynamic equilibrium, or balance, when faced with external stressors. Understanding how our ECS maintains this balance — also known as homeostasis — is connected closely to our understanding of how cannabinoids (including CBD) in the hemp plant interact with the ECS to help support our well-being.
In this “endocannabinoid system 101,” we’ll walk you through an overarching timeline of when the ECS was discovered, how it works and what you can do to enhance it.
In This Article
Research into the ECS kicked off in 1988, when scientists at St. Louis University Medical School discovered that a rat has an abundance of receptors on its brain that are activated by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one type of cannabinoid found in Cannabis sativa. They named these cannabinoid receptors “CB1” and published their findings in the journal Molecular Pharmacology. This sparked a new question among scientists: why do our bodies have receptors that respond to cannabinoids? It suggested that we must produce our own cannabinoid-like compounds (endogenous cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids) in the first place.
By 1992, scientists had discovered the first endocannabinoid neurotransmitter, known as anandamide, which binds to CB1 receptors in the brain. Anandamide, which means “bliss” in Sanskrit, is responsible for several mood-altering effects, including the feeling of the “runner’s high.”
Since then, there have been other key discoveries, including:
- 1993: The discovery of the CB2 receptor.
- 1995: The discovery of 2-AG, a more prevalent endocannabinoid (cannabinoids that occur naturally in the body) than anandamide.
- 2004: The discovery of the potential to have clinical endocannabinoid system deficiency, a theory that suggests a lack of endocannabinoids may be at the root cause of many ailments and body imbalances.
The ECS is the body’s primary regulatory system; you can think of it as a sophisticated internal thermostat. In the same way that a thermostat in your home is sensitive to shifts in temperature and will trigger your cooling or heating system to maintain a set temperature range, your ECS keeps an array of bodily functions in a state of homeostasis when external stressors threaten to disrupt their equilibrium.
The ECS works in your body using three primary components:
- Endocannabinoids (such as anandamide and 2-AG), which your body produces when needed.
- Endocannabinoid receptors (such as CB1 and CB2), which are located throughout your body as “docking stations” for endocannabinoids.
- Enzymes that break down endocannabinoids once they’ve completed their function.
Endocannabinoid receptors are located almost everywhere in your body. According to a study published in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, CB1 receptors are located in your central nervous system, eyes and spleen, while CB2 receptors are found predominantly in the cells of the immune system. Other sites for receptors include the glands and cells of the reproductive, gastrointestinal and urinary tracts, among others. Because of the widespread presence of endocannabinoid receptors, your ECS may have an effect on mood, appetite, muscle soreness, stress response, inflammation and beyond.
CBD has no intoxicating effects — making it a powerful tool without the sometimes unwanted psychoactive properties of THC. Though research is still trying to determine the exact ways in which CBD interacts with the ECS, scientists know that it does not interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors in the same ways that THC does. CBD may also bind to other receptors and pathways in the body, not just cannabinoid receptors.
According to a 2018 paper published in Surgical Neurology International, “Molecular targets of CBD, including cannabinoid and non-cannabinoid receptors, enzymes, transporters, and cellular uptake proteins, help to explain CBD's low-binding affinity to both CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors.” In other words, while it may not bind as strongly to our CB1 and CB2 receptors as THC does, it connects to many other receptors which may explain its connection to maintain homeostasis across a number of our bodily systems.
Though the most exciting studies on this topic are ahead of us, we know that taking CBD has several potential benefits, including support for better sleep health, relaxation, mobility, muscle relief and more. Taking CBD regularly — especially a product that uses an emulsion for maximum bioavailability — can be a great way to support your ECS and experience these positive effects for a more balanced wellness routine.
James Han is a writer, editor and content strategist based in Los Angeles. When he’s not deep in a Google Doc, you can find him reading, watching films and taking long walks.
Molecular Pharmacology - ”Determination and characterization of a cannabinoid receptor in rat brain”
Project CBD - Endocannabinoid Discovery Timeline
Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience - ”Cannabinoid Receptors in the Central Nervous System: Their Signaling and Roles in Disease”
Surgical Neurology International - ”Review of the neurological benefits of phytocannabinoids”
Project CBD - How CBD Works
Healthline - 7 Benefits and Uses of CBD Oil (Plus Side Effects)