If you’ve been paying attention to CBD, then you’ve probably been hearing another acronym that often comes up in the cannabinoid conversation: the ECS. It stands for endocannabinoid system, and while it’s always been there, inside each and every one of us, it’s not something that’s been talked about until recently.
In this post, we’re going to give you a crash course in all things ECS with these 10 illuminating facts—ranging from what it is to why you want yours running smoothly to why we’re just now hearing about it.
1. The ECS is a Master Regulatory System
The ECS consists of cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids, and metabolic enzymes that all work together to keep our chaotic inner biological worlds as balanced as possible. Cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) are located all over the body on the surface of cells and act as little loading docks where cannabinoids can attach to affect the ECS. Endocannabinoids are chemical compounds made in the body that activate the ECS to generate certain responses. Metabolic enzymes break down endocannabinoids once they have done their thing. It’s a never-ending system of checks and balances (hopefully).
2. The ECS Has Your Back … and Your Organs, Your Appetite, Your Sleep Cycles …
The ECS is responsible for homeostasis—the maintenance of a stable internal environment. Its overall goal is maintaining your well-being. Research has uncovered a lot about how the ECS gets this done, but experts maintain that it’s so extensive that there is still much to learn. Here are just a few of the systems and functions in your body that the ECS strives to keep balanced: the central nervous system, the immune system, memory, sleep, metabolism, inflammation, appetite, and weight.
3. The ECS is Old, but New to Us
We might just now be learning about the endocannabinoid system, but according to UCLA Health, research shows that the ECS is incredibly old, having evolved over 500 million years ago.
But why are we just now hearing about this important master system in our bodies? (Hint: read the next fact).
4. Your Doctor May Not Know About the ECS—Here’s Why
A survey conducted in 2013 found that just 13% of 157 medical schools teach the ECS by at least mentioning it in one course. This means that alongside the nervous system, immune system, reproductive system, etc., the master regulatory system in our bodies has not been taught to doctors, nurses, and various other health professionals. It’s true that the endocannabinoid system was not discovered until the early 1990s … but why did it take so long to discover, and why drag our feet on incorporating it into the field of medicine and science? The answer is: because of cannabis. Specifically, THC.
5. THC Led Scientists to the ECS
In the 1990s, Dr. L.A. Matsuda was the first to describe the structure and functional expression of the cannabinoid receptor, CB1. How did she and her team get there? They were following THC around in the brain, and they started asking themselves why a plant compound would have a receptor in the human brain … unless the human body made a similar chemical that used that receptor. They soon discovered that chemical—the endocannabinoid, anandamide.
Our master regulatory system is named for cannabis, because we knew about cannabinoids and their effects decades before we discovered that we make similar chemicals that activate a whole system in our body. Given the stigma of cannabis and the political propaganda surrounding it for nearly a century, it’s not too difficult to see why we’re just learning about the ECS.
6. Our Bodies Make Endocannabinoids
We have two endocannabinoids that we know of so far: anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Our body makes these chemical compounds on demand to help keep the balance. For example, one of the things anandamide is in charge of is mood. So if your ECS determines some anandamide is needed to boost your bliss, it will make some to order. But everything has to be kept in check, so after a while, metabolic enzymes like fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) break down the anandamide after its had its time to shine, so you won’t get blissed out (similar to the euphoria experienced from THC).
7. Phytocannabinoids Mimic the Behavior of Endocannabinoids
As you can see from the previous fact, phytocannabinoids—or plant-based cannabinoids from cannabis—can do what our natural cannabinoids do for our ECS. In fact, like anandamide, THC acts on the CB1 receptor, which it fits into very nicely. CBD, however, does not fit perfectly into CB1 receptors and ends up blocking other cannabinoids like THC from getting in there. This is why CBD is thought to moderate the euphoric effects of THC.
8. You Have Cannabinoid Receptors Everywhere
Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body and are the most abundant neuromodulatory receptors of any system in the body by a long shot. Some of the places where cannabinoids receptors are found include the brain, nerves, skin, immune cells, bone, fat tissue, liver, pancreas, skeletal muscle, heart, blood vessels, kidney, and gastrointestinal tract—whew!
9. If It Has a Spine, It Has an ECS
All invertebrates are blessed with an ECS, including mammals, bird, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. This means your dog or cat has one too. Which also means that your pet can benefit from cannabinoids the same as we can.
10. Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency
Research has shown that there may be such a thing as Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CED) and that it might explain migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel, and other treatment-resistant syndromes. The theory of CED suggests that we all have an endocannabinoid tone that is made up of how much of our endocannabinoids we produce, the amount of receptors that we have, and the state of our ECS. It is believed that a deficiency in this tone might explain the existence of some of the syndromes above. Research is ongoing on this intriguing matter that could have a huge effect on people suffering from treatment-resistant illnesses.