The Endocannabinoid System Helps Us Eat, Sleep, and Relax

Every time I write about the Endocannabinoid System (ECS), I discover more new information about how it all fits together. Scientists believe that the ECS is crucial to our survival and I cannot overstate how important it is to understand its functions. In this article I will explain  when it was discovered, how it works and how it is interconnected with the cannabinoids in medical cannabis. I will also explain Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Theory (CECD).

Discovery of the ECS

The path to the discovery of the ECS began in 1988, when Allyn Howlett and William Devane identified the first cannabinoid receptor, CB1, in a rat’s brain. They went on to map the CB receptors in the brain. The next milestone was in 1992 with the discovery of anandamide, a naturally occurring endocannabinoid. This led to the realization that there existed an unnamed molecular monitoring system which they called the Endocannabinoid System.

The ECS is extremely complicated and scientists are not clear on all the specifics of its workings. What they are certain of is that the function of the ECS is to maintain homeostasis when the body is challenged by stress, infection or injury. It is crucial for human survival.

Homeostasis is defined as the tendency of a system, especially the physiological system of higher animals, to maintain internal stability, owing to the coordinated response of its parts to any situation or stimulus that would tend to disturb its normal condition or function.

Your ECS acts as a monitoring system and when something is wrong, the ECS activates in order to correct it. The purpose of the ECS is to keep all our body systems well-regulated and in excellent condition. This includes controlling the following:

  • Pain
  • Appetite
  • Sensation
  • Inflammation
  • Thermoregulation
  • Eye Ocular Pressure
  • Mood and Energy
  • Metabolism
  • Stress Response
  • Muscle Control
  • Motivation and Reward

What Does Endocannabinoid Mean?

Endo comes from endogenous which is a substance that is produced naturally by your body. Cannabinoid comes from cannabis. When you put it together you get “cannabis-like substances that naturally occur inside us.”

There are 3 components to the ECS

  • 1. Endocannabinoids
  • 2. Receptors
  • 3. Enzymes

There are 2 Endocannabinoids which are naturally occurring substances produced by the body, made from fat-like molecules within cell membranes. They are also referred to as phytocannabinoids. They are created upon demand, in response to some changes in the body. They bind with the receptors just like a lock fits into a key.

  • Anandamide (AEA) The etymology comes from the Sanskrit meaning “bliss”
  • 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) regulates emotional states, provides protection from seizures and maintains cardiovascular health.

There are at least 2 types of receptors found all throughout the body:

1. CB1; more highly concentrated in the brain and nervous system

These receptors can be found in the cerebral cortex, caudate nucleus, putamen, globus pallidus, amygdala, hypothalmus, hippocampus, subtantia nigra, cerebellum and the dorsal vagal complex

2. CB2; more abundant in organs and tissues, and the immune system

Some researchers believe that there is a 3rd CB receptor. Many think it has not yet been discovered while others believe it may be GPR55. Here is the link to an article I wrote about GPR55; it simultaneously is implicated in cancer growth AND is neuroprotective.

There are 2 main enzymes which break down endocannabinoids:

  • Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) breaks down AEA
  • Monoacylglycerol acid lipase (MAGL) breaks down 2-AG

Once the endocannabinoids have done their job, the enzymes break them down so that they are not used longer than is necessary.

Functions of the ECS

Central Nervous System

Encourages neurogenesis and provides neuroprotection

GastroIntestinal System

Protects the GI tract from inflammation


Regulates the hypothalmic functions such as metabolism, reproduction and stress response


Regulate bone mass and bone regrowth

Immune System

Regulates the immune system by suppressing proinflammatory cytokine production


Controls food intake, balances metabolic function such as energy storage, nutrient transportation and insulin sensitivity


The regulation of blood sugar increases stamina and the endorphin “high”

Cannabis Cannabinoids and the ECS

The cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis mimic our naturally occurring endocannabinoids. That is why cannabis works so well to alleviate and control the symptoms of so many disorders and conditions. When there is a deficit of endocannabinoids, the cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis may help stimulate and boost the ECS in a safe and therapeutic way, by returning it to homeostasis. It does so by addressing many problems in multiple biological layers.

Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Theory (CECD)

Leading cannabis researcher, Dr. Ethan Russo, coined the term Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Theory. Some people are born with an ECS system that just doesn’t work properly or stress and injury have caused a disruption in their ECS, causing a deficiency of endocannabinoids. It is now thought that the cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis may counteract that deficiency.

How THC and CBD Impact the ECS

THC and Anandamide

THC, from cannabis, and anandamide, an endocannabinoid, attach to CB1 receptors in the brain. They both have a calming effect; THC has a psychotropic effect, while anandamide does not. The reason for this is due to the activity of the FAAH enzyme. It quickly breaks down anandamide but it has no effect on THC which remains active for a much longer period of time.

THC also binds well with CB2 receptors which explains why it provides relief for those with autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases and digestive disorders, just to name a few.


Researchers believe that CBD binds with CB1 and CB2 receptors by blocking our endocannabinoids from being broken down by enzymes. This allows much more of an effect on all of our body systems.

Slowly but surely, the medical community of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals are learning about the ECS. More and more classes are being offered at the college level. As more and more Americans are embracing medical cannabis usage, let’s hope that more medical professionals will recommend its usage in order to support and boost the ECS in a safe and therapeutic way.

Sources:, What is the Endocannabinoid System, May 7, 2019., CBD: Benefits for Your Cannabinoid System, Aug 4, 2018, What is the Endocannabinoid System?, Endocannabinoid System (ECS)