The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex cell-signaling system identified in the early 1990s by researchers exploring THC, a well-known cannabinoid. Cannabinoids are compounds found in cannabis.
Experts are still trying to fully understand the ECS. But so far, we know it plays role in regulating a range of functions and processes, including:
- reproduction and fertility
The ECS exists and is active in your body even if you don’t use cannabis.
Read on to learn more about the ECS including how it works and interacts with cannabis.
The ECS involves three core components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.
Endocannabinoids, also called endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules made by your body. They’re similar to cannabinoids, but they’re produced by your body.
Experts have identified two key endocannabinoids so far:
- anandamide (AEA)
- 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)
These help keep internal functions running smoothly. Your body produces them as needed, making it difficult to know what typical levels are for each.
These receptors are found throughout your body. Endocannabinoids bind to them in order to signal that the ECS needs to take action.
There are two main endocannabinoid receptors:
- CB1 receptors, which are mostly found in the central nervous system
- CB2 receptors, which are mostly found in your peripheral nervous system, especially immune cells
Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor. The effects that result depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to.
For example, endocannabinoids might target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to relieve pain. Others might bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body’s experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders.
Enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their function.
There are two main enzymes responsible for this:
- fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down AEA
- monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which typically breaks down 2-AG
The ECS is complicated, and experts haven’t yet determined exactly how it works or all of its potential functions.
ResearchTrusted Source has linked the ECS to the following processes:
- appetite and digestion
- chronic pain
- inflammation and other immune system responses
- learning and memory
- motor control
- cardiovascular system function
- muscle formation
- bone remodeling and growth
- liver function
- reproductive system function
- skin and nerve function
These functions all contribute to homeostasis, which refers to stability of your internal environment. For example, if an outside force, such as pain from an injury or a fever, throws off your body’s homeostasis, your ECS kicks in to help your body return to its ideal operation.
Today, experts believe that maintaining homeostasis if the primary role of the ECS.
Cannabis is derived from the cannabis plant (cannabis sativa). It grows wild in many of the tropical and temperate areas of the world. It can be grown in almost any climate, and is increasingly cultivated by means of indoor hydroponic technology.
The main active ingredient in cannabis is called delta-9 tetrahydro-cannabinol, commonly known as THC. This is the part of the plant that gives the “high.” There is a wide range of THC potency between cannabis products.
Cannabis is used in three main forms: marijuana, hashish and hash oil. Marijuana is made from dried flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant. It is the least potent of all the cannabis products and is usually smoked or made into edible products like cookies or brownies (see Factsheet: Marijuana Edibles). Hashish is made from the resin (a secreted gum) of the cannabis plant. It is dried and pressed into small blocks and smoked. It can also be added to food and eaten. Hash oil, the most potent cannabis product, is a thick oil obtained from hashish. It is also smoked.
Cannabis is usually smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes (known as “joints”) or in special waterpipes (“bongs”). These pipes or bongs can be bought or made from things such as orange juice containers, soft drink cans or even toilet rolls.
Cannabis sativa has a long history as a medicinal plant, likely dating back more than two millennia (Russo et al., 2007). It was available as a licensed medicine in the United States for about a century before the American Medical Association removed it from the 12th edition of the U.S. Pharmacopeia (IOM, 1999). In 1985, pharmaceutical companies received approval to begin developing Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) preparations—dronabinol and nabilone—for therapeutic use, and as a result, cannabinoids were reintroduced into the armamentarium of willing health care providers (Grotenhermen and Müller-Vahl, 2012). Efforts are now being put into the trials of cannabidiol as a treatment for conditions such as epilepsy and schizophrenia,1 although no such preparations have come to market at this time. Nabiximols, an oromucosal spray of a whole cannabis plant extract with a 1:1 ratio of THC to cannabidiol (CBD), was initially licensed and approved in Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada for the treatment of pain and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis (GW Pharmaceuticals, 2016; Pertwee, 2012), but it continues to undergo evaluation in Phase III clinical trials in the United States.2 Efforts are under way to develop targeted pharmaceuticals that are agonists or antagonists of the cannabinoid receptors or that modulate the production and degradation of the endocannabinoids, although such interventions have not yet demonstrated safety or effectiveness. Nonetheless, therapeutic agents targeting cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids are expected to become available in the future.