The Endocannabinoid system

Back in 1988,  Allyn Howlett & William Devane started a study that discovered a system of neuro-transmitting receptors in the body of mammals. They discovered that these receptors responded positive to multiple compounds that are also found in cannabis (cannabinoids).

Later on, the discovery of cannabinoids (chemical compounds in cannabis) also led to the discovery of Endocannabinoids (cannabinoids that are produced only by and inside our body) and fytocannabinoids (only produced by plants) because they have similair characteristics.

Both types of cannabinoids bound perfectly with the receptors in our body, resulting in specific medicinal properties. However only the endocannabinoids are being produced in our bodies, so even without consuming cannabis, the ECS runs on these similair compounds.

The study to these endocannabinoids in combination with the discovery of receptors led us to the discovery of a complete endocannabinoid system in human beings.

But how does it work?

The ECS works with 3 main components: Endocannabinoids, receptors and enzymes.


Another name for endocannabinoids is “endogenous cannabinoids”. These are molecules produced inside the human body and are quite similair as phytocannabinoids (produced in plants) as they can both bound with the same receptors in the ECS.

Untill now, scientist have found 2 important Endocannabinoids so far:

  • 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)
  • anandamide (AEA)

These can bound with multiple types of cannabinoid-receptors in our body resulting in smoothly running internal functions. Your body only produce them when they are needed as they take about regulating functions in your body.

Molucular structure of 2-AG

Endocannabinoid receptors

There are multiple types of endocannabinoid-receptors found all over our body. All these types of receptors offer different properties, reacts to different (endo)cannabinoids and can be found in different tissues. However the 2 main receptors we look at are called:

  • CB1 receptors (mainly found in central nervous system)
  • CB2 receptors (mainly found in immune-cells in the peripheral nervous system)

Endocannabinoids can bound with both of these receptors, but the effect that they produce depends on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid is bounding with that receptor.

For example: Some cannabinoids can target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to reduce pain. These same cannabinoids could also target a CB2 receptor in immune cells to tell your body it’s experiencing an inflammation (a sign of autoimmune disorders).


Once the cannabinoids did their work and produced the desired effect, they need to be breaked down in order to get rid of them. Thats when our enzymes come in action! These 2 types of enzymes are responsible for this:

  • fatty acid amide hydrolase (breaks down AEA)
  • monoacylglycerol acid lipase (breaks down 2-AG)

Functions of the Endocannabinoid-system:

Even with all the research that is being done, scientist still don’t know exactly how everything in the ECS works and what it’s potential is. However, the researches that already have been done told us that the ECS can be linked to these processes:

  • Appetite
  • Bone growth and remodeling
  • Cardiovasculair system function
  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammation
  • Learning and memory
  • Liver function
  • Metabolism
  • Motor control
  • Mood
  • Muscle formation
  • Reproductive system functions
  • Sleep
  • Skin + nerve function
  • Stress

The ECS and it’s function are all about something we call: Homeostasis. This is a process in our body that takes care of the stability of the internal environment and keeps chemical and psychical processes in balance. Experts believe that the primary role of the ECS is to maintain your homeostasis.

For example: Let’s say you are having a bad fever which hurts your muscles. This will eventually¬† throw off your homestasis. Once this happens, your ECS kicks in to help your body and homeostasis getting back to their ideal state.

What about Phytocannabinoids and the ECS?

After the discovery of the Endocannabinoid-system, researchers found that phytocannabinoids (Found in cannabis plants) could also bound with the CB1 & CB2 receptors in our body. This means that, because of this bounding, the phytocannabinoids could also take care of medicinal effects.

When it comes to Phytocannabinoids, there are 2 types that are very important and well known:

  • THC
  • CBD