Part 1: Human Endocannabinoid System - Hemp New Zealand™
A Simple Guide To The Human Endocannabinoid System

Part 1: Endocannabinoid System

A Simple Guide To The
Human Endocannabinoid System


The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex molecular signalling system vital to the survival of all mammals. Only discovered a few short decades ago scientific studies of ECS are still in their infancy.

Somewhere along the way most of us have become familiar with the 12 well-known systems in our bodies including digestion, circulation, respiratory, lymphatic, and immunity.

You may not be so familiar with the endocannabinoid system or – as it’s sometimes called – the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS).

As it turns out it’s one of the most important physiological systems we have – crucial for optimum health and healing of both mind and body. However, as it’s so young in terms of research it’s not fully understood.

When Was The Endocannabinoid System Discovered?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) was discovered around 1990. The story goes that Israeli chemist and researcher Dr Raphael Mechoulam – who had identified THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, in the 1960s – was exploring how THC worked in the body. Dr Mechoulam and his team discovered that mammals produce substances called endocannabinoids (ECs) that activate cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body.

Point to note

Receptors are proteins in cells that receive molecular signals and send messengers to the brain to induce a physiological response in the body.

They also learned that the endocannabinoid system responds well to some of the phytocannabinoids (plant cannabinoids) produced by different parts of the Cannabis sativa plant. While THC is the most well-studied phytocannabinoid due to its psychoactive properties there are over 100 lesser-known, mostly non-hallucinogenic, plant cannabinoids.

A Simple Guide To The Human Endocannabinoid System

How Does The Endocannabinoid System Work?

Even though it’s a fairly recent discovery the potential importance of ECS has spawned a plethora of research over the last decade. Scientists have learned endocannabinoids are produced by the brain and there is a network of cannabinoid receptors present in the brain, organs, immune cells, glands, and connective tissue.

Most importantly, researchers have ascertained that the endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in maintaining homeostasis – or a state of balance and equilibrium – in the body.

In fact, ECS is the master regulator of our emotional, cognitive and physiological function and the most important system we have for our survival.

Research suggests the ECS regulates and influences:

  • Appetite
  • Bone health
  • Cardiovascular responses
  • Digestion
  • Energy
  • Fertility & reproduction
  • Inflammation
  • Learning
  • Liver function
  • Memory
  • Metabolism
  • Mood
  • Muscle formation
  • Pain sensation
  • Pleasure
  • Sleep

ECS appears to play a fundamental role in reproduction. It has been detected from the earliest stages of embryonic development and throughout pre- and postnatal development. In addition, the endocannabinoids – notably 2-AG (see below) – are present in mother’s milk. Research is showing that right from embryonic implantation, through prenatal brain development and postnatal suckling ECS is an essential part of the process.

ECS is also believed to play a role in neuroprotection. Promising data is emerging regarding the management of chronic stress and addiction as well as anxiety, depression, obesity, and inflammation. Hopeful statistics are also being seen for the treatment of neurogenerative disorders such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Indeed, the list of functions and conditions ECS has the propensity to improve continues to grow.

The endocannabinoid system’s goal is always homeostasis and it’s often referred to in scientific circles as a bridge between the body and the mind.

What Are Endocannabinoids?

Point to note

Endo = body. Phyto = plant. 

  • Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters or cellular messengers produced naturally in the body. They send messages to neurons (nerve cells) in the brain and body.
  • Phytocannabinoids are produced in the Cannabis sativa plant and are most concentrated in the trichomes (tiny, hairy growths).
Both forms of cannabinoids can activate the body’s endocannabinoid system.
Dr Mechoulam’s research isolated two main endocannabinoids:
  • Anandamide (AEA)
  • 2-Arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)
  1. It is believed that AEA plays a role in sleep, motivation and pleasure and is as potent as THC. It binds primarily to the cannabinoid receptor CB1 and then to CB2. The name Ananda comes from the Sanskrit word for bliss or joy.
  2. 2-Arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG) binds to both cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. It is found in the brain and central nervous system

The Two Main Cannabinoid Receptors

The researchers pinpointed two main receptors found throughout the body cannabinoid 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid 2 (CB2). 

Cannabinoid 1

CB1 is predominantly found in the central nervous system (CNS) and brain but can also be found in the liver, thyroid, bones, uterus and testes1.

Cannabinoid Receptor 2

CB2 is mostly connected with the immune system, spleen and gastrointestinal system.2 However, like CB1 it has also been found in the brain and peripheral nervous system3.

When the endocannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptor – often likened to fitting a key into a lock – it triggers a cellular response dependant on where the receptor is found i.e. pain cessation or a feeling of wellbeing.

Unlike most neurotransmitters, endocannabinoids are not stored in cells but are produced on demand. For example, in the event of an injury, the ECS will trigger cannabinoids to heal and bring the body back to homeostasis.


No information about ECS would be complete without mentioning the enzymes that break down endocannabinoids after they’ve been released and have swooped in to do their job. The two main ones are:
  • MAGL – monoacylglycerol acid lipase for the breakdown of 2-AG
  • FAAH fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down AEA
For a detailed description of enzymatic pathways and endocannabinoids click here.


We’ve endeavoured to simplify an extremely complex and significant physiological system to make it easier to understand for the non-scientific among us! All of the information and scientific research to date points to ECS being of immense importance to our lives. Crucial even. The data shows it underpins our entire health and wellbeing from emotions and moods and optimum physicality through to managing injury and illness.

Look out for Part 2 of this series.

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