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The Endocannabinoid System

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a supplement that is becoming widely known for its positive effect on well-being and general health. It is one of over sixty cannabinoids that can be found in cannabis plants. Can they really influence our body and improve our health?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the body’s network that interacts directly with cannabinoids. Decades of scientific research have only just begun to unlock its mysteries. This unique collection of natural chemicals and transmitters holds the key to fully understanding the interactions between our body’s cannabinoid compounds and our nervous systems.

“The discovery of the Endocannabinoid system is the single most important medical scientific discovery ever.” - Dr David Allen, Cannabinoid Research Scientist.

We know that the ECS can have an impact on how we feel, move and react but what is less understood is how and why. Many people have never heard of it, but its receptors are among the most abundant neurotransmitter receptors in the whole body. They are present specifically to interact with cannabinoids and can be found in all animals.

This system has a big influence on our lives but what is actually known about it?

What is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

The endocannabinoid system is an interactive system in your body. Unlike many of the body’s systems, such as the circulatory system and the digestive system, it mostly takes place at a molecular level. This means that many of the chemicals and structures involved are too small to see with the naked eye.

The ECS is a network of receptors that cannabinoids can interact with or influence. This interaction can result in positive effects on your body. Cannabinoids can enter the body from external sources but the body also produces its own, called endogenous cannabinoids or endocannabinoids. ‘Endogenous’ means ‘originating within an organism’.

It is thought that these human cannabinoids often give us beneficial effects of their own. The feeling of well-being that you get following exercise is believed to be as a result of endocannabinoids interacting with the ECS receptors.

“Your body makes endocannabinoids and they perform some miraculous functions in the body. We are just learning some of these functions.” Dr David Allen, Cannabinoid Research Scientist.

These endocannabinoids and receptors are found across your body. The main types of endocannabinoid receptors are cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2).

ECS receptors are found in the cells and structures linked to your body’s nervous system. That is, your brain, spinal column and the many thousands of nerves connected to it (CB1). They are also found in cells and organs connected to your peripheral nervous system (CB2). These are the other cells and structures that communicate with your brain but are spread widely across your body.

It is believed that all animals possess an endocannabinoid system that interacts with their nervous system, promoting its function and health. In order for our body to send the many messages it requires, it contains an unimaginable number of chemical receptors. However, the receptors of the ECS are believed to be the most abundant. This indicates that they are not an incidental slip of evolution but that they continue to play a key role in our body’s regulation.

“The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating balance in our body’s immune response, communication between cells, appetite and metabolism, memory and much more…” Dr Ira Price, Director, Cannabis Research Associates.

How does the endocannabinoid system work?

The receptors of the endocannabinoid system can be viewed as locks that only fit certain keys. Endocannabinoids fit these locks and so do cannabinoids harvested from plants. These are known as phytocannabinoids. ‘Phyto’ means ‘plant’. When these keys turn they interact with, and produce, a positive effect in the body’s homeostatic mechanism.

The homeostatic mechanism is how the body keeps the chemicals and reactions in balance. This is often referred to as ‘the Goldilocks zone’ because, just like Baby Bears’ porridge, the conditions need to be just right.

For our bodies to remain well and healthy many things such as temperature and acidity need to be kept within the Goldilocks zone. Just like in your home’s heating system, once the temperature is set, the thermostat makes tiny adjustments to keep it at the correct temperature.

Homeostasis relies on messages carried across your whole body that allow your central nervous system to make electrical and chemical adjustments. These adjustments affect how you feel, relaxation, temperature, how alert you are and many other feelings and body responses.

The interaction between cannabinoids, such as CBD, and your ECS is thought to positively affect your body’s homeostatic mechanisms. This allows all of these communications to work smoothly, increasing sensations of relaxation and supporting your body to respond better to things that are out of balance.

Imagine you are in a warm bath. As you lie there you realise the water is cold. You reach for the tap and turn it on. Then you wait as the temperature returns to a comfortable level and turn off the tap. This is very similar to what the body’s homeostatic mechanisms do when something is out of balance.

The process of heating your bath water again is very effective. You end up back in a comfortable warm bath. However, it takes several minutes and during that time you are cold. Think of cannabinoid interactions with the ECS as allowing that process to happen quicker and smoother. It still takes place, but it is more efficient so you are comfortable for longer.

The discovery of individual cannabinoids and the ECS changed everything

Here's a short history of the ECS and the discovery of individual cannabinoids.

The isolation of cannabinoids - 1964

In 1964 a scientist from Israel named Raphael Mechoulam was able to isolate cannabinoids for the first time. The first to be found were THC and CBD. Professor Mechoulam believed that by starting with the plant he was able to learn more about the body’s systems that would interact with it. While scientists at this time could not yet find the receptors, they now knew that they must exist and could begin the search.

“By using a plant that has been around for thousands of years, we discovered a new physiological system of immense importance,” Professor Raphael Mechoulam.

Cannabinoid receptors discovered -1988

In 1988 research led by Allyn Howlett and William Devane discovered the first cannabinoid receptor in the brain of a rat. They noticed that these receptors were incredibly abundant. Researchers then used an artificial form of THC to map the receptors present in the brain. They were found in greatest numbers in areas responsible for mental and physiological processes.

People soon realised that this system could be of huge importance to our general wellbeing and to physiological processes. However, nobody knew why we had this system when, at this point, it only seemed capable of interacting with chemicals found outside of the body.

The DNA sequence for the receptors is discovered - 1990

In 1990 research scientist Lisa Matsuda was able to find the DNA sequence responsible for the receptors in the brains of rats. Following this, they were then able to create rats that didn’t have these receptors. Studies showed that these ‘knockout’ mice received no psychoactive effects when dosed with THC. This proved that it was these receptors (CB1) that THC interacted with.

The second receptor (CB2) and endocannabinoids are found – 1992-1995

In 1993 a second receptor was found and referred to as CB2. It was found in many organs including the gut, spleen and liver and also in lymph cells.

In 1992 and then in 1995 Raphael Mechoulam, as well as NIMH researchers William Devane and Dr Lumir Hanus, discovered two of the body’s naturally occurring cannabinoids. They were named Anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol or 2-AG. Anandamide appears to interact with CB1 just like THC, and 2-AG interacts with both CB1 and CB2 receptors.

Because of these discoveries, an entire molecular signalling system had been discovered. It then became known as the endocannabinoid system.

What research is being conducted today?

There are lots of fascinating studies related to the ECS currently being conducted and there is much still to discover and learn. The latest research has now revealed further complexities to these sites and their related compounds:

• There are studies that have indicated that there may be sub-varieties within each type of receptor.
• There is also the possible presence of more receptor sites than just CB1 and CB2.

In addition to this, the possibility for adapting, discovering and synthesising chemicals to interact with these sites seem to be huge. Studies continue to reveal a huge range of potential benefits and positive effects to our health and well-being.

How to stimulate the endocannabinoid system

As revealed by the discoveries of Professor Mechoulam and his contemporaries, stimulation of the ECS could have a huge range of effects on our bodies.

There are two main categories of methods that can be used to stimulate the ECS and promote these effects.

1. Stimulation of the action and production of your body’s endocannabinoids

Production of anandamide and 2-AG can be stimulated in a number of ways. Here are a few that we particularly like:

Cold exposure and the Wim Hof Method

Extended cold exposure using strategies like the Wim Hof method . Start slowly by reducing your shower to its minimum temperature for 10 seconds before you get out.

Some studies show that there may be a link between cold and the production of extra CB1 neurons. This means that not only will this stimulate the use of Endocannabinoids but it could also increase the impact of phytocannabinoids such as CBD.

Olive oil

Olive oil in your cooking. Start by adding an extra virgin olive oil dressing to your next salad. Olive oil is believed, by some, to reduce the breakdown of 2-AG in the body. To make this a real boost to your ECS why not combine the olive oil dressing with your favourite CBD oil?

Flavonoids & chocolate

Foods rich in flavonoids may prevent the breakdown of anandamide. Flavonoids are found in nearly all fruits and vegetables as well as chocolate, wine and tea. A great way to start is by creating meals with as many different colours as possible. Often the more colourful a fruit or vegetable is the richer in flavonoids it is. Many amazing food combinations can be given a CBD edible boost by cooking with CBD, to really double down on your ECS stimulation.

Wonderfully, chocolate also contains anandamide. Not only is it rich in antioxidants and flavonoids it also contains the body’s own endocannabinoid. What better reason to enjoy one of our favourite CBD edibles, a great tasting bar of CBD chocolate.


Exercise is a real winner when it comes to your ECS. Studies have indicated that it may stimulate endocannabinoid receptors, enhance their receptivity and even increase anandamide production.

2. Stimulation of the ECS by phytocannabinoids from cannabis and hemp

CB1 and CB2 receptors can also be stimulated using cannabinoids sourced from outside of the body. Cannabinoids from cannabis interact with these receptors, producing many effects that are the subject of current research studies.

By choosing a good quality, full-spectrum hemp product: it should contain a wide range of cannabinoids. Use of Full Spectrum CBD oil as a supplement is a great way to take full advantage of the entourage of cannabinoids and their interactions with CB1 and CB2 receptors:

The endocannabinoid system and CBD oil

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the most abundant cannabinoids found in cannabis. It is non-psychoactive which means that it will stimulate your ECS without getting you high. Unlike some other cannabinoids, it doesn’t bind directly with either the CB1 or CB2 receptors but instead stimulates the ECS system by activating TRPV1 receptors which regulate many homeostatic actions. It also stimulates the production of anandamide which in turn binds with your body’s ECS receptors.

CBD oil in the UK is produced from hemp strains that are naturally low in THC. This produces an oil that contains less than the legal limit of 0.2% THC and is instead packed full of the many beneficial cannabinoids found in the hemp plant.

CBD oil is one of the best ways to stimulate your ECS in its own right. It is easy to use and incredibly versatile. There are many methods and products that will allow you to tailor your experience to suit you and your needs. Because of the range of cannabinoids found in the oil, they will interact with both CB1 and CB2 receptors.

Not only is CBD oil useful in this way but, as previously indicated, it makes a great pairing with many of the methods that can be used to stimulate your body’s naturally occurring cannabinoids.

Conclusion on the ECS

The recent studies into the effects of cannabinoids on our body are founded in decades of research and science. While it may seem as if CBD has suddenly appeared in our lives and on our shelves, similar cannabinoids have had a role in our bodies since we evolved from sponges and a role in our science since the sixties.

Now that you understand the basics of these interactions, you can find the best ways to maximise on your knowledge and stimulate your ECS to promote your health and well-being. The chemical signals transmitted throughout your body from receptor to receptor can create a huge difference in how your body responds to all manner of stresses and pressures.

The Endocannabinoid System does not need to be a mystery it should be some that we harness in our quest for wellness within our best selves.

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