Endocannabinoid System 101: The basics of the ECS System

The human body has to maintain its balance at all times, especially in today’s world when everyone is subjected to extremely hostile and toxic environments. So, what system exists in the body that keeps moods uplifted, pain levels low, inflammation controlled, and appetite in place?

The physical and mental health of a person is kept in balance by a physiological system called the endocannabinoid system. Here are some basics about this system, including its importance and function, and what can be done to enhance its working.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system is short for endogenous cannabinoid system, which means an inherent molecular system in human bodies that produce cannabinoids internally. Endocannabinoids are similar to cannabinoids except they are produced at a cellular level within the body as opposed to derived externally from plants.

These endocannabinoids help in various processes at the cell level to maintain homeostasis, which means maintaining a balance in the body despite external influences. The figure below explains the endocannabinoid system in higher detail.

History and Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System

Even though the endocannabinoid system is so crucial for maintaining homeostasis, its presence was unknown to scientists until the middle of the 20th century. It was in 1964 that Dr. Raphael Mechoulam first isolated the compounds tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) from plant sources, which are also known as phytocannabinoids.

Much later, in 1990, biologist Lisa Matsuda first identified a THC-receptor in the brains of laboratory rats. This was the first time that endocannabinoid receptors were discovered in a mammal.

Around the same time, Dr. Mechoulam identified the two endocannabinoids present in the human body, namely, anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Due to their structural and functional similarity with the phytocannabinoids, the endocannabinoid system in the human body was so named.

Why is the Endocannabinoid System Important?

Endocannabinoids, by maintaining homeostasis, play an important role in preventing and in some cases, curing illnesses. If homeostasis is not maintained correctly, it can throw the body’s basic functions out of gear, resulting in both mild and severe illnesses.

Because the endocannabinoids work at the cell level, they can maintain uniformity throughout the body. They can thus control various physiological processes such as sleep, appetite, hormonal responses, enzyme regulation, and so on.

What is more interesting is that endocannabinoids have a profound effect on a person’s mental and emotional well-being, too. So, processes such as regulation of moods, stress, anxiety, memory, and so on are controlled by this system as well.

Moreover, the endocannabinoids form a bridge between cells and allow them to communicate freely. You can even say that the endocannabinoid system is the bridge that joins all the pathways of the body and the mind.

Endocannabinoid System Deficiency

That brings us to the question, what happens if someone is deficient in endocannabinoids? A deficiency in endocannabinoids is now known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency. It is similar to a deficiency in other neurotransmitters. For example, a lower level of serotonin can cause depression in some people.

Studies across various groups of chronically ill patients have shown that the endocannabinoid anandamide was significantly lower in them compared to those who did not suffer from the illness. For instance, cerebrospinal fluid samples of migraine patients were tested and significantly low levels of anandamide were found. Similar conclusions have been made in mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What Does the Endocannabinoid System Do?

The primary role of the endocannabinoid system, as mentioned before, is to maintain homeostasis. To do so, it gets activated in several cells of the body, especially the brain, the central nervous system, and the immune system.

It controls the transportation of nutrients, supports metabolic functions, controls enzyme functions, and so on. It has been seen to affect peripheral tissues, the gastrointestinal tract, the pancreas, and the skeletal muscles. Thus, it can be concluded that the endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in almost every function of the body.

How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?

Endocannabinoids flow through the body and reach the cells by binding to specific receptors. These receptors are called CB1 and CB2, and scientifically, they are G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs).

While CB1 receptors are found in the brain, the central nervous system, and the reproductive organs (both male and female), CB2 receptors run through the body’s immune system. Hence, the function of the endocannabinoids largely depends on the receptors that they bind to.

Of the two kinds of endocannabinoids, anandamide tends to bind more to the CB1 receptors, although in some instances it may bind to CB2 receptors as well. Anandamide is thus appointed largely by the body to relieve pain and control moods.

The other form of endocannabinoid, that is, 2-AG, binds to the CB2 receptors, and hence works directly on the immune system. An example of this would be when the body is alerted of any kind of inflammation, which is an immune system response controlled by the endocannabinoid.

Both endocannabinoids work locally and have extremely short half-lives, and are metabolized at the end of their task by enzymes such as fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH).

The Effect of CBD on Anandamide

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the plant-based cannabinoids that has been seen to improve the levels of anandamide in the body. CBD does not directly increase anandamide, instead, it fools the anandamide destroying enzymes such as FAAH to believe that it is an endocannabinoid.

This phenomenon occurs because CBD is structurally similar to anandamide. As a result, FAAH decides to break down fewer anandamide molecules, leading to an overall increase in the anandamide levels of the body.

As this cycle goes on, it becomes regular for the body to make more anandamide and also increase the number of receptors. Over time, the baseline function of the endocannabinoid system improves, thanks to more anandamide binding to more receptors. The entire phenomenon can improve a person’s overall health and have a therapeutic effect on chronic illnesses.

How Do You Activate the Endocannabinoid System?

The obvious answer is to take phytocannabinoids such as THC and CBD in optimum doses. Other than these, certain foods can also enhance the functioning of the endocannabinoid system.

Adding a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to the diet is one way of doing so. Cacao powder also has molecules that are structurally similar to endocannabinoids. Other foods that can enhance the system include herbs such as tea, turmeric, black pepper, cloves, lemon balm, oregano, and cinnamon.

Apart from food, stress reduction techniques and regular exercise are also beneficial for the endocannabinoid system. Last but not the least, various supplements now use anandamide powder mixed with adaptogens and other endocannabinoid-enhancing foods, which when taken in the right doses can boost the body’s anandamide-related activities.


The endocannabinoid system is one of the most important physiological systems of the body which, up until the late 20th century, went largely undiscovered. Thanks to recent research and a wide range of studies, it is now known that endogenous cannabinoids bind to receptors present throughout the body and work at a cellular level to maintain homeostasis.

This vital system that controls everything starting from moods through enzymes to immunity can be enhanced through the administration of externally occurring phytocannabinoids such as CBD and THC.

Anandamide, one of the endocannabinoids, which works on the brain and the central nervous system, can also be increased through certain foods and supplements specially made with anandamide powder. With the right doses, an enhanced endocannabinoid system can prevent and potentially treat many physical as well as mental health conditions.