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01 May 2019

Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System

I’m a researcher. Just over two years ago, I was introduced to the subject of medical cannabis. My quest was to understand how cannabis works in our bodies to provide medicinal benefits. It’s been a little over two years since I started my research, and I’ve learned quite a bit. 

The more I’ve read, the more overwhelmed I’ve become at how extraordinarily complex the human body is. Our bodies are the product of millions of years of evolution, and it shows. Our bodies are like tremendous orchestras, with more instruments in our bodies (cells) than there are stars in the sky. And not only are there brass and string and percussion instruments – akin to our circulatory and digestive and immune systems – but within each system there are scores of sub-systems. Within the wind instruments are numerous flutes and oboes and clarinets and saxophones and bassoons. 

The average human body contains about 33 trillion cells of about 200 different types, 100,000 miles of blood vessels, and 640 skeletal muscles. Every day, the average adult takes over 20,000 breaths, experiences 100,000 heartbeats, processes about 200 quarts (50 gallons) of blood through the kidneys, and filters out about 2 quarts of waste and water. 


Our 33 trillion cells cluster to form tissues and organs. Cells, tissues and organs combine to create systems that perform larger functions. Our bodies contain 11 different major body systems: Cardiovascular, Digestive, Endocrine, Exocrine, Immune, Muscular, Nervous, Renal, Reproductive, Respiratory, and Skeletal. 

And it turns out that the Grand Maestros of our supreme orchestras are our Endocannabinoid Systems (ECS). It is our ECS that keeps all of our body systems and components in synch, making sure they create harmonious melodies and not dissonant rackets. Our ECS moderates all 11 body systems.

As an aside, when referring to the ECS, the literature uses the descriptor, moderate. I looked up the term in the dictionary, just to make sure I understood exactly what it meant. From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of moderate

1 : to lessen the intensity or extremeness of

2 : to preside over or act as chairman of

The way I interpret this is: the ECS watches over the functioning of particular activities in our bodies and makes sure everything stays within limits. 

The literature also refers to the function of the ECS as keeping our systems in homeostasisWikipedia defines homeostasis as follows:

Homeostasis is the state of steady internal conditions maintained by living things. This dynamic state of equilibrium is the condition of optimal functioning for the organism and includes many variables, such as body temperature and fluid balance, being kept within certain pre-set limits (homeostatic range).

Having a better understanding of these terms, moderate and homeostasis, helped me paint a much clearer picture of the role of our ECS in keeping our bodies in good health.

End aside.

I had never heard of the endocannabinoid system before I started my research on cannabis. It turns out that most people outside the cannabis industry haven’t heard of it either. In fact, there was one article I read on the subject that was quite aptly titled, “The Endocannabinoid System: The Most Important System You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Scientists only discovered our Endocannabinoid Systems during the early 1990s. And they really only began publishing information about the ECS since the late 1990s (see Figure 1).

10 2 Search ECSFigure 1: Google Scholar Search for “Endocannabinoid System”

Our Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is intimately intertwined with all of our other body systems, and it watches over all our bodies’ workings to make sure they stay in synch. 

Our ECS is densely populated within our Nervous System: our brains and spines, our peripheral nerves, and our sensory system. From those positions, our ECS moderates over mood, sleep, metabolism, pain, and much more.

Our ECS touches all our glands and muscles. As such, the ECS moderates all of our bodies’ physical movements and chemical secretions, all our so-called effectors

Our ECS is also integrated into our different types of body tissues (skin and other sensory tissues, connective tissue, etc.) and from that position is able to moderate all the collection and processing of information our body generates.

Our ECS is densely populated within our immune system. From that position, the ECS moderates offensive and defensive actions regarding disease and injury.

I find it overwhelming to think about how our ECS plays such an immensely important role in maintaining health; yet, we’ve only just begun to learn about that system. Research into how our ECS works is still very new, and the more we learn, the more we realize just how vastly and complexly ECS activities affect our health and well-being.

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