Physician Resources

Medical Marijuana and the Endocannabinoid System

The ECS also known as the endocannabinoid system was first discovered when researchers were studying the famous cannabinoid THC. This occurred in the early 90s and it was found that the system is a cell signaling system with some real complexity. 

While the endocannabinoid system is still not fully understood we do know that it helps regulate a number of systems in the human body, including:
  • sleep

  • appetite

  • mood

  • memory

  • Pain Perception


The ECS exists and is active in your body even if you don’t use cannabis. For example, when you exercise and get the “Endorphin High”, it is actually mediated by the ECS.

How does
it work?

The ECS involves two core components:

Endocannabinoids and receptors.

Endocannabinoids  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.

Endocannabinoid receptors: 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 (The brain and spinal cord, affecting your mood and pain perception)

  • CB2 receptors, which are mostly found in your peripheral nervous system (The spine and pain nerves going to your muscles and joints)

The human body does produce its own endocannabinoids. These cannabinoids bind to one of two receptors, the CB1 receptor or the CB2 receptor.  When the endocannabinoids bind to the CB1 receptors the effect can be relief of nerve pain. While when they bind in to the CB2 receptor the body can be signaled that it is experiencing inflammation. Inflammation is often caused by auto immune disorders. 

What are its functions?

The ECS is complicated, and experts have not yet determined exactly how it works or all of its potential functions. However, it is known that the ECS affects the following bodily functions:

  • appetite and digestion

  • Metabolism

  • Chronic Pain

  • Inflammation

  • mood

  • learning and memory

  • motor control

  • sleep

  • muscle relaxation

  • bone remodeling and growth

  • stress

  • nerve function

The aforementioned 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 is the primary role of the ECS.


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