The Endocannabinoid System: What is it and why is it important?

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) can seem difficult to understand at first – it’s a web comprised of thousands of connections created by 18 known endocannabinoids, 42 cannabinoid receptors and 32 plant cannabinoids. These thousands of biochemical interactions keep life within carefully monitored limits.

But, it really starts with a simple concept: cells need to know what to do. This is where endocannabinoids come in. Every incoming signal (an endocannabinoid) to a cell tells the cell about its energy state and stress (redox) state.

The Steps

Let’s walk through it. First, a cell, which has an endocannabinoid receptor, is activated or stimulated and it responds by releasing more endocannabinoids. These endocannabinoids travel to another cell and tell that cell about itself and what action to take.

A good metaphor to understand the process is a lock and key. The receptor is the lock. The cannabinoid is the key. When the key is turned, a signal is sent. The signal then acts as another key. And the process repeats.

So, we already know these signals tell the cell about itself. But what exactly is being communicated? Well, first, signals inform the cell of its energy state. The energy state of any given cell is determined by the ratio of ATP (the charged version of the universal energy carrier in nature) to ADP (the uncharged version). ATP is an abbreviation for adenosine triphosphate, which is a high energy molecule found in every cell whose job it is to supply the cell with needed energy. ADP is the abbreviation for adenosine diphosphate, a molecule which stores energy. Your body also converts ADP into ATP in a cyclical fashion.

Endocannabinoids also signal to the cell its redox, or stress, state. This is determined by the ratio of reduced to oxidized elements in the cell. Oxidized elements (free radicals) cause damage to the cell & can cause permanent DNA damage. This is what the antioxidants that everyone talks about prevent! And cannabinoids are some of the best antioxidants in nature.


Here are some scenarios to help you wrap your brain around this:

  1. ATP high, ADP low, reduced and oxidized elements balanced:
    1. Signals to cell nucleus that all is well and the cell can continue doing what it’s doing (dividing, growing, etc).
  2. ATP & ADP balanced, reduced and oxidized elements balanced:
    1. Signals moderate stress to the cell nucleus
    2. Cell responds by adapting what it’s doing until the signal is ‘all green’ again
  3. ATP low, ADP high, reduced elements low, oxidized elements high:
    1. Signals considerable stress to the cell nucleus
    2. Cell responds by initiating apoptosis
      1. Cell-autonomous suicide – the cell sacrifices itself for the greater good of the system (the body)
  4. No ATP, only ADP, oxidized elements heavily outweigh reduced elements:
    1. Signals most severe stress to the cell nucleus
    2. Cell is beyond apoptosis & the immune system kicks in to eliminate the overstressed cell

Since endocannabinoids are involved with regulating such a wide variety of bodily processes, there are huge therapeutic possibilities for a wide range of issues. There are many “orphan cannabinoids.” We don’t know exactly what these do but they contribute to the synergistic ability of cannabinoids: when they all work in concert, the most optimal results are achieved.



Now that we understand the general system, let’s talk about receptors. Receptors are located on certain cells, either in the brain, central nervous system (CNS), the immune system or scattered throughout the body. There are four different classes of cannabinoid receptors. The most studied of these fall within the first class: G protein Receptors (GPRs). GPRs are a family of proteins which control critical cellular functions like cell division and metabolism. The two types within the class are CB1 and CB2.

CB1 is most abundant in the brain and CNS but is present throughout the body. This receptor is known for its democratizing effect: when a nerve cell is activated by another nerve cell, it will release an endocannabinoid that will reduce the chance of being activated by that cell again. As a result, stronger connections get weaker and weaker connections have a chance to grow stronger. This is why some cannabis users report difficulty remembering things on one hand but inspiration and creativity on the other.

CB2 is most abundant in immune system cells but can be found throughout the body. This receptor is best known for its capacity to suppress or modulate the immune system and inflammatory reactions.

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Class 1 GPRs – CB1 and CB2

Class 2 receptors are orphan receptors that are also GPRs.

Class 3 receptors are nuclear receptors which are involved in genes and are essential factors in cell differentiation and metabolism.

Class 4 receptors are TRPs (Transient Receptor Potential) and they’re involved in vision and sensations of pain, temperature, pressure and various tastes.

Expert’s Perspective:

Dr. Joose Heeroma, Director of Science at GH Medical in the Netherlands, has been researching homeostasis and the ECS for years.

According to Heeroma, the human body’s dogma is to be as energy efficient as possible, kill anything foreign to the body and maximize brain function and memory. Our drive to be energy efficient causes us to store fat which leads to obesity and causes genetic control over cell division to decline with age, which can lead to issues like cancer and Alzheimers. Our immune system’s drive to kill foreign entities causes collateral damage like multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome (Crohn’s Disease) and inflammation. Our highly developed brains develop bugs like autism, epilepsy, depression and psychosis.

Cannabinoids help us because they “loosen the reigns of efficiency on our metabolism, immune system and brain,” Heeroma says.

Shifting our metabolism’s focus from fuel efficiency (optimal growth) to optimal body maintenance at the expense of fuel efficiency would be an evolutionary detriment. But in modern society, food is around in ample quantities, and therefore body maintenance is preferable.

Dr. Heeroma would love to think excess energy obtained from blocking fat storage (negating our energy-efficient tendencies), is used to increase cellular maintenance and turn over. This might then decrease the likelihood of developing cancer, Alzheimers, etc.

In Summary:

Much more research needs to be done to discover the far-reaching implications of the ECS, but the takeaways are that:

  1. Endocannabinoids, plant cannabinoids and receptors together form the ECS.
  2. This system is responsible for controlling the body’s most critical functions.
  3. Without this system, our cells wouldn’t know what to do.
  4. Supporting this system is vital because it controls a large array of functions in our body.
  5. Plant cannabinoids can bolster your body’s supply of endocannabinoids, causing the ECS to function more efficiently.