The endocannabinoid system

For a long time, our cells could communicate with each other without us being able to overhear. We assumed they were talking but did not know how. Over the last century, researchers have discovered and understood more and more about the communication systems in our body, including the language of cells. But anyone who learns a new language wants to apply it. As a result, scientists have identified the chemical messages and fed hormones and neurotransmitters to the human body. Now they could have a say and influence the body processes. This can be helpful in the case of illnesses, for example, if the thyroid is underactive, the missing hormones can be supplied from the outside.

Cannabinoids are one of the languages, more specifically one of the groups of neurotransmitters, that support cell communication. As we know today, many cells in the body have cannabinoid receptors. Just like any other neurotransmitters such as for example hormones, the cannabinoids dock onto cell receptors and give them orders.

How exactly this works has only been recently found out. The discovery of the main drug of cannabis, THC, succeeded in 1964. It took another 24 years for researchers to understand how THC works in the body. They found that THC has a say in the body’s dialogue of cells. This is administered via the so called endocannabinoid system. This is not in a special place, but is almost everywhere in our organism.

Since its discovery, the endocannabinoid system has become a primary object of medical research because of its enormous effects and therapeutic potential for the human body.


One must think of the endocannabinoid (ECS) system as an all-body, branched communication system that operates on the key-lock principle. The locks represent receptors and the appropriate keys are the corresponding messengers, the cannabinoids. In these messenger substances one distinguishes agonists and antagonists. While agonists activate a receptor and thus forward a message to give instructions to cells, antagonists block it.


The endocannabinoid system is the name for a number of cell receptors that act on cannabinoids and thus their characteristic effects in the body. react. Two primary cell receptors form the ECS: cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2). These are found throughout the body.


Receptors that are present in the entire human body, but are primarily found in the brain and spinal cord. They concentrate in regions associated with the behaviors that affect them, such as the hypothalamus involved in appetite regulation and the amygdala, which play a role in memory performance and emotional processing, e.g. plays by Scherzwahrnehmung. They are also found in nerve endings, where they contribute to the reduction of the pain sensation.


Typically concentrated in immune cells and the peripheral nervous system. When activated, they act as an anti-inflammatory immune response that is widely believed to play a role in the body’s immune response in certain diseases.


Cannabinoids are natural chemical messengers of the body. They are present in large numbers and each fall into one of two categories: endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous means having its origin in the body. Exogenous means supplied from outside.


Cannabinoids, which are naturally produced in the human body, are called endocannabinoids. Yes you have read correctly: our body produces its own cannabinoids. They are made within the body’s fatty acids like Omega-3. They interact with cannabinoid receptors to regulate basic functions such as mood, appetite, pain, sleep, and more. These include for example:

Anandamide: Highest concentrations occur in the brain. It promotes bone growth and has a neuroprotective effect.

2-AG (2-Arachidonoylglycerin): Highest concentrations occur in the brain. It promotes bone growth and has a neuroprotective effect.
These endocannabinoids are referred to as short-term neurotransmitters because they are present in inactive components and are only synthesized when the body signals that it is in acute need of it. They are rapidly degraded after their release by enzymes such as FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) and MAGL (monoacylglycerol lipase). There are many other endocannabinoids such as noladin ether, virodhamine and N-arachidonoyl dopamine (NADA). Their role in the body, however, is not fully understood. Your body produces endocannabinoids to trigger essential bodily functions and patterns. Dr. Ethan Russo, a medical neuroscientist, cannabinoid expert and adviser to GW Pharmaceuticals, believes that “deficient cannabinoid levels can be the underlying cause of numerous diseases.” This endocannabinoid deficiency may possibly be the cause of diseases and conditions such as chronic pain or fibromyalgia associated with the endocannabinoid system.


The counterparts to the endocannabinoids are exogenous cannabinoids or phytocannabinoids. Exogenous cannabinoids, such as those found in cannabis plants like THC and CBD, are called phytocannabinoids. Phyto is Greek and means coming from a plant. When ingested, they interact with the ECS, performing physical and psychological effects in the body. This activates the endocannabinoid system to a greater extent so that it can operate more productively than it would normally be the case.


Research shows that THC binds to both receptors (CB1 and CB2) and activates them in the same way as an endocannabinoid. The effects of THC are generally considered to be psychoactive, but this compound does much more than just intoxicants, as it has been shown to help with chronic pain, nausea, appetite, asthma, and glaucoma. In addition, THC has been shown to be effective in cancer treatment, and interestingly, it even has a symbiotic effect on the body when taken with CBD – the so called entourage effect.


In fact, CBD does not bind directly to CB1 or CB2 receptors, but instead acts as an inhibitor of the enzyme FAAH, slowing down or preventing the breakdown of anandamide, possibly one of the most crucial endocannabinoids in the body. The result is a buildup of anandamide in the brain. While we are aware that THC has an obvious psychoactive effect on the mind, CBD is considered to be effective at the physiological level, with just beginning to discover the medical benefits. However, CBD has been shown in preclinical and clinical studies to aid in the treatment of severe diseases, including the inhibition of tumor growth, the reduction or prevention of inflammation and nausea, and diabetes, PTSD, schizophrenia, rheumatoid arthritis, epilepsy, cardiovascular disease, psychosis, anxiety disorders and even as analgesics for muscle cramps or neuropathic pain.


How can we benefit from all this? Well, the endocannabinoid system is considered a guardian of balance and basically regulates all of the basic functions and processes that our bodies have to perform, including:

  • Mood
  • sleep
  • appetite
  • Metabolism
  • pain perception
  • Memory and cognitive function
  • immune function
  • inflammatory reaction
  • Neuroprotection and development
  • digestion
  • reproduction

Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body, a large number of CB1 receptors are localized in the central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are more abundant in immune cells, the gastrointestinal tract and the peripheral nervous system. This can give you some idea of the variety of functions offered by the endocannabinoid system. This has led to the theory that the endocannabinoid system is the natural way to regulate homeostasis: the ability to maintain a stable internal balance by adapting physiological processes.