A Simple Overview of the Endocannabinoid System

Just a quick disclaimer; we don’t make health claims about CBD, we just share the research. You'll always find references to scientific literature to substantiate what we share. This is for informational use only. Always speak to your doctor before making any changes to your healthcare regimen.  

CBD is quickly taking over the health supplement industry. There's a lot of excitement around it, which can naturally make some of us skeptical. However, Im about to share with you to exactly why the hype around CBD is real.

A survey of CBD users reported it as an effective means of managing numerous health conditions; pain, depression and anxiety were just a few (1). The main reason CBD has such versatility, helping a range of conditions, is due to how it works in the body. CBD supports the bodies endocannabinoid system, which maintains health at its very core.

What is the Endocannabinoid System? 

The Endocannabinoid system (or ECS) is one of the least understood, but perhaps the most significant systems in our bodies. It was as late as 1988 until it was even discovered, and we're still trying to understand exactly how it works. 

However, we do understand that the primary role of the ECS is to maintain balance (homeostasis) in the body. Homeostasis is the critical maintenance of equilibrium inside the body, despite constant changes in the world outside that serve to disrupt it. 

The ECS works in a similar way a thermostat would, turning physiological processes up or down to meet the evolving demands the external environment puts on the body.

Take running for example. 

When you start running, this puts an increased demand on the bodies systems. The ECS pitches in to ensure blood vessels dilate, breathing rate increases and core body temperature is maintained through sweating. This is all to maintain balance within, despite greater demands on the body. 

Another example is maintaining body temperature when we transition from indoors to outdoors. When we go outside and its freezing cold, our bodies must respond and adjust appropriately. Core body temperature has to remain in a sweet spot even though its just gotten much colder outside. Thats the ECS at play right there.

This also applies for many other processes like metabolism, sleep, mood regulation and immune function. The ECS runs the show. Its like the conductor of an orchestra - it makes sure all the bodily systems are playing in synchronous harmony.

Without the ECS co-ordinating the bodies systems, they'd play out of tune and the synchronous harmony which keeps us fighting fit and healthy would be lost.  

In real terms, the ECS maintains our metabolism to prevent us from becoming diabetic and overweight, it co-ordinates our immune systems so we can fight infections, and regulates our sleep cycles so we can repair and renew.

Thats just the tip of the iceberg. 

How Does The Endocannabinoid System Work? 

To understand the ECS, it helps to know a little bit about hemp.

Hemp is home to hundreds of unique compounds called (phyto)cannabinoids (phyto meaning plant). Incredibly enough, similar cannabinoids also occur naturally within all of us as well. The only real difference is that they are made inside of us, or endogenously. This is where the term endocannabinoid comes from; endo meaning within. 

The Endocannabinoid system is made up of three main parts:

  • Endocannabinoids. These are messengers that communicate far and wide throughout the body. You can think of these as special keys. 
  • Cannabinoid receptors. These are special receivers (locks) which translate messages from keys into changes in biological function. 
  • Metabolic Enzymes. These make, and break down endocannabinoids to control their levels in the body.

Together, these three parts make up a communication network that reaches across the whole body, and co-ordinates almost all of the bodies functions.

In order to deliver a message, endocannabinoids bind with receptors in much the same way a key fits into a lock.

So endocannabinoids act like keys and receptors act like locks.

Receptors are found on the surface of many different types of cells across the body. When unlocked, a receptor translates the message into a change in biological activity inside its respective cell.

For example, in a muscle cell the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptor may either speed up or slow down energy production, which influences metabolic rate and over time, body weight.  

This basically means that the ECS can adjust physiological activity up or down across the entire body, similar to how a thermostat controls the heat in your whole house. 

Two major roles the ECS has is controlling the nervous and immune system. It regulates the activity of neurotransmitters in the nervous system, like dopamine, serotonin, GABA and acetylcholine.

Neurotransmitters influence the way we think, feel and act.

  • Dopamine = pleasure and reward
  • Serotonin = happiness and safety
  • GABA = relaxation and rest
  • Acetylcholine = memory and cognition

The ECS also influences how immune cells communicate, how they behave and ultimately affects the levels of inflammation in the body. Inflammation has a huge effect on human health and disease, so the ECS has an crucial responsibility here.

Cannabinoid Receptors

Cannabinoid receptors are like locks which are found on the outside of cells. These locks specifically recognise endocannabinoids (and cannabinoids), which are their respective keys. When unlocked, biological activity changes in a cell, which corresponds to changes in:

  • Blood Pressure
  • Cognition
  • Pleasure & Reward
  • Pain
  • Reproduction
  • Digestion
  • Inflammation
  • Immune function
  • Thermoregulation
  • Appetite
  • Sleep
  • Mood & Emotion
  • Memory
  • Energy metabolism
  • PH Balance

There are two main cannabinoid receptors:

  • Cannabinoid Receptor 1 (CB1)
  • Cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2)

CB1 is found mostly in the brain and nervous system, but also in the:

  • Liver
  • Reproductive organs
  • Lungs
  • Fat tissue
  • Gastrointestinal system
  • Pancreas
  • Muscle

CB2 is mainly found on cells of the immune system, but also in:

  • The central and peripheral nervous system
  • Skin cells
  • Bone making/degrading cells
  • Pancreas
  • Liver

The Endocannabinoid System and Health

Everyones ECS activity varies based on how they live their lives, their environments and genetics. Sometimes our ECS can be disrupted, which means our bodily systems consequently struggle to keep us healthy.

Several things can disturb the way the ECS works. Life today can be stressful for the ECS, which makes it hard for it to maintain health.

A few are:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Infection
  • Stress
  • Poor diet

Some peoples ECS can become disrupted due to how their lifestyle, environment and genetics are interacting. The ECS can become both over and under active, which disturbs the balance of homeostasis in many different ways.

Fundamentally, that means the conductor fails to keep the instruments (bodily systems) playing in sync, and the harmony that ensures great health is lost. 

An under active ECS, or clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) has been suggested to be at work in IBS, mood disorders, and migraines. In contrast, an ECS thats overactive may play a role in obesity, problems with blood sugar and arthritis. 

Researchers are still trying to establish whether the ECS is disrupted as a result of disease, or if it is driving disease. They just don't know for sure yet. 

You often see that more than just one bodily system becomes imbalanced in many health conditions. Take IBS for example; in addition to digestive issues there are often problems with mood, sleep and fatigue. That means the digestive, nervous, immune and hormonal systems may also not be working properly.

It makes sense to hypothesise that if all these systems are imbalanced at once, then it may have something to do with the ECS, since it co-ordinates all the bodies systems. 

The Endocannabinoid System, CBD and other Cannabinoids

Phytocannabinoids are so incredibly similar to endocannabinoids, they’re basically siblings. They are keys that fit the same locks as endocannabinoids, meaning they can alter bodily processes in a similar fashion. This helps support balance across the bodies systems.

Another example of this phenomenon in nature is the interaction between compounds found in soy with the oestrogen receptor. Soy contains phytoestrogens, which like the hormone oestrogen (which we naturally produce) can also bind the oestrogen receptor and alter physiological processes such as mood, reproduction and bone metabolism (2).

This phenomenon may have something to do with the tidal wave of interest in phytocannabinoids such as CBD. People are using it for all sorts of ailments, from depression to arthritis, pain, headaches, insomnia and cancer (1).

Phytocannabinoids have a powerful effect in the body, because they can hang around for much longer than their endocannabinoid siblings, which only have short lasting effects from moment to moment.

CBD actually prevents the breakdown of one of our endocannabinoids, known as Anandamide (the bliss chemical). This means there’s more Anandamide available for our cells to soak up. More anandamide provides mood boosting, anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effects (3).

CBD can also block cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 (4), (5), which alters how messages are received by endocannabinoids.

So, CBD can both turn up and turn down the ECS, based on each individuals need to turn their ECS up or down. CBD does this by acting as an adaptogen

It might be that phytocannabinoids like CBD could help support the function of an ECS that is struggling to maintain homeostasis in certain medical conditions.

It makes sense if you look at what the ECS does, and the fact that phytocannabinoids push many of the same buttons that endocannabinoids do.