5 Things You Never Knew About The Endocannabinoid System

Anxiety, pain, sleep, digestive issues, depression, headaches, nausea...the list of reasons why people use CBD is practically endless. If you’ve ever wondered why, exactly, CBD has so many different benefits, it all has to do with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), the large system in the body that CBD interacts with. 

black and white nude portrait of girl shot by Emiliano Vittoriosi

The ECS is affectionately known as the body’s “master regulatory system” and we’re learning more about how it affects our health on the reg. 

In an effort to keep up with all that new knowledge and info, here are five things you never knew about the endocannabinoid system. 

1. The ECS produces its own natural versions of CBD and THC

When it comes to cannabinoids, CBD and THC tend to get all the fame. But they’re just one type of cannabinoid! Technically, CBD and THC are phytocannabinoids because they’re derived from plants. The body also produces its own cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids because they’re made endogenously (AKA, inside your own body). The two main endocannabinoids are 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) and anandamide (AEA) and they have similar effects on the body as phytocannabinoids. Anandamide has even been nicknamed the “bliss molecule” and binds to the same receptor in the body as THC. 
Interestingly, scientists discovered phytocannabinoids before they discovered endocannabinoids. In fact, studying the effects of CBD and THC on the body led to the discovery of AEA, 2-AG, and the endocannabinoid system as a whole. This seems backwards, doesn’t it? It’s not the first time this has happened. Scientists discovered opioid receptors and chemicals called endorphins when they were studying the effects of opium on the body as well. 

As if we needed more proof that nature is the best medicine. 

2. It doesn’t always work as well as it should

As we learn more about the ECS, we’re understanding that sometimes, our body’s natural endocannabinoid levels aren’t as high as they should be. In fact, we know enough about this now that researchers have coined the terms “low endocannabinoid tone” and “clinical endocannabinoid deficiency.” A faulty endocannabinoid system has been connected to health conditions ranging from IBS and muscle spasms to migraines and fibromyalgia. And as more research is conducted, we’ll almost definitely be adding more to that list. 

3. It uses something called “retrograde signaling"

We’re not talking about mercury retrograde, thank goodness. This type of retrograde is much more enjoyable. 

So how does it work? Essentially, cells communicate with each other by sending signals (usually in the form of chemical messages like hormones or neurotransmitters) from a presynaptic portion of a cell to the postsynaptic portion of a cell. For endocannabinoids, this is flipped; when the ECS is activated, the post-synaptic part of the cell releases the endocannabinoids, which bind to the presynaptic portion of the cell and are able to control its activity.

It’s kind of like all the body’s hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemical signals are driving one direction on a highway and endocannabinoids are on the same highway driving in reverse. Pretty cool, right? 

4. You need fat to make the ECS work properly

Our body produces its own cannabinoids via the ECS, but how? Endocannabinoids are actually synthesized from omega-3 fatty acids
For you and me, this means that what we eat matters to our ECS. According to one of the lead authors of a study on omega-3s and endocannabinoids, ”Foods such as meat, eggs, fish, and nuts contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which the body converts into endocannabinoids.” 

There’s still a lot more to learn, but it looks like not eating adequate amounts of healthy fats could put us at risk for endocannabinoid deficiency. 

5. Your exercise routine matters to the ECS

Just like nutrition matters to the health of our endocannabinoid system, so does exercise. The ECS might explain why we feel so good after we exercise. In a 2015 study, researchers were able to show that runner’s high—which is described as a “sudden pleasant feeling of euphoria, anxiolysis, sedation, and analgesia” is dependent on the endocannabinoid system. Other studies have shown that exercise can enhance CB1 receptor sensitivity. 

There’s still a lot more to learn about the ECS, but so far it looks like it plays a pivotal role in the way we feel on a daily basis. In the future, we might even use endocannabinoid tons as a marker of a person’s overall health and well-being. To thank our ECS for looking after us, we can support it by eating well, moving our bodies, and generally taking care of ourselves.

Written by Gretchen Lidicker

Senior Health Editor & CBD Expert or Contributing Health Editor and CBD Expert. Gretchen is a writer, researcher, and author of the book CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide To Hemp-Derived Health & Wellness. She has a masters degree in physiology and complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University and is the former health editor at mindbodygreen. She’s been featured in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Forbes, SELF, The Times, Huffington Post, and Travel + Leisure.

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