The ECS and Endocannabinoids: Are We Made for Cannabis? 

Originally published in the now-defunct but beloved Civilized, in early 2019.

Let me ask you a cringe-worthy question, “Have you heard of CBD?”

Of course you have. (It’s already got its own pyramid schemes, for crying out loud.) You’ve probably also heard of THC, three letters cherished throughout the world for the euphoric effects it brings. And you might even know that they are both cannabinoids, active compounds of the cannabis plant, and that there are many many others. 

But did you know that your body makes its own versions of cannabinoids?

True story. They’re called endocannabinoids, and they’ve got a big responsibility. We’ll share how to keep them at their best, but first let’s explore the system that they’re a part of.

The Endocannabinoid System is what Makes Cannabis so Powerful

There’s a network of receptors located throughout your body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and it’s how the cannabinoids in cannabis work their magic. This crucial system was discovered back in 1988; but, in large part due to the illegality and stigma surrounding the plant that it interacts with, it’s tragically understudied and hardly covered in medical school. 

The cannabinoids in cannabis interact with receptors all over the ECS, causing various effects in the system they are located within – and they’re located everywhere. 

We spoke with self-described ‘cannabinoidologist’ Tamás Bíró MD, PhD, DSc, Professor, Director General of the Hungarian Center of Excellence for Molecular Medicine and Director of Applied Research, Phytecs, Inc. who explained, “The ECS is a central player in maintaining and controlling the homeostasis of the human body. As of today, we know that the ECS is functionally active in all organs of the body and controls most of its physiological processes.” 

You read that right, the ECS is active in all organs of the body and controls most of the processes that keep us alive and functioning. It’s global presence in the body is how cannabinoids, like the now-ubiquitous CBD, are able to help treat all kinds of ailments.

But We Also Make Endocannabinoids

It might seem like our bodies were made for weed, but it’s not quite a stoner fantasy of that level. (Still pretty cool though.) Our bodies create molecules called endocannabinoids, the prefix endo– being short for endogenous, that also interact with this system, helping it to promote healthy function throughout the body. 

Though several more have been discovered, two main endocannabinoids are presently being studied. Anandamide was the first to be discovered, named for the Sanskrit word for ‘bliss’. The second main endocannabinoid is 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG); whose moniker may not have a charming origin, but has been scientifically linked to feelings of bliss as well; 2-AG’s plasma levels have been found to be elevated after orgasm in both men and women. 

A more well-known byproduct of elevated endocannabinoid levels is the phenomenon of peaceful euphoria often experienced by athletes during intense exercise. As explained to us by Nicholas V. DiPatrizio, Ph.D., University of California, Riverside School of Medicine, “Levels of endocannabinoids are elevated in blood during running, which may contribute – at least in part – to ‘runner’s high’.”

When Endocannabinoids Can’t do Their Thing, Trouble Arises

The ECS helps promote health throughout the body by encouraging balance in its various functions. Much like we prefer not to be too hot or too cold, the systems in our bodies have “Goldilocks zones” that they perform best at. The endocannabinoids and receptors that make up the ECS help adjust functions so they are just right.

And when this system isn’t able to its job, health can go very awry. As Dr. Bíró puts it, “For the body to stay healthy, it requires a healthy ECS. However, like all equations, ‘healthy ECS = healthy body’ is also valid from the other direction.” He continues talking about the impacts of an unhealthy ECS, “As a consequence; the ECS will be unable to regulate homeostasis, which in turn impairs key physiological functions.” 

So, if you want to get a healthy body – you need to get a healthy ECS.

What Can I do to Improve my ECS Health?

1) Maintain Balance: It makes sense that practicing harmony in one’s lifestyle is the way to keep this system of balance in order. Dr. Bíró continues, “The most important thing you can do to keep the ECS healthy is to avoid the extremes. To name a few examples: avoid extreme and chronic stress, avoid being overweight, control alcohol consumption, and try to curtail dependencies, in general.”

2) …Even When it Comes to Cannabis: Dr. Bíró also notes that while overconsumption of non-endogenous cannabinoids (like those in cannabis) can lead to ECS dysfunction, conversely they can also be used to treat the symptoms that it causes. “One can use carefully selected and properly dosed cannabinoids to substitute for endocannabinoids if their production levels are low.” He also noted that some ratios were more beneficial than others, drawing importance to the use of multiple cannabinoids (not just, say, CBD) as well as why there’s discrepancy among pertinent studies.  

3)  Eat Right and Get Moving: We also spoke with Ethan Russo, MD. of the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, who shared, “Lifestyle approaches can be integral to fostering a healthy ECS. These include regular aerobic exercise and following an anti-inflammatory diet; such as a Mediterranean diet, with emphasis on olive oil, fish, seeds and nuts,” also suggesting pro- and prebiotics. He added, “Sedentary behavior is harmful to the ECS, as are foods that are pro-inflammatory, such as fried foods with trans-fats, or too many calories in general.”

To Feel Good, Get Right with Your ECS

The ECS not only makes cannabis so powerful, it’s the system responsible for keeping all the other systems in line. It’s a big deal, even if your doctor isn’t privy to it. 

Dr. Russo continues, “Boosting endocannabinoid tone offers many advantages, by balancing neurotransmitter function in the brain, regulating digestion, and positively influencing overall homeostasis in virtually every physiological system of the body.” He also noted how personal advocacy is important, “People should be encouraged to educate themselves and their doctors on the role of the endocannabinoid system in overall health and its maintenance.”

So if you’re feeling off, consider how balanced your approaches to activities and wellness are; maybe your ECS needs a little TLC. And while you’re restoring balance, a bit of THC, CBD, CBN, or any of the many other cannabinoids out there – just might ease the journey.

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