Discovered by scientists in the early 1990s, the endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating many basic functions throughout the body including mood, appetite and memory.
The system can be activated by cannabinoids that are naturally created by the body — endocannabinoids — and those found in the cannabis plant — phytocannabinoids — which, as you might have guessed, is where it got its name (endo means “internal” and phyto means “plant”).
Cannabinoid receptors were discovered because researchers were trying to understand how phytocannabinoids like THC interact with the body. They were named cannabinoid receptors after the main chemicals that activate them — cannabinoids.
Scientists later discovered that the body produces very similar molecules that fit the same receptors. They were named endocannabinoids.
Among the functions regulated by the endocannabinoid system (ECS) are memory, appetite, body temperature, the immune system, sleep, pain, and the female reproductive system.
By regulating these functions, the ECS is believed to help maintain balance, or homeostasis, in the body. In fact, the ECS has even been called a master regulator of homeostasis.
How does the endocannabinoid system work?
In order to understand what the ECS is, it’s helpful to imagine the process of how it works.
Take pain, for example.
Let’s imagine a woman named Emma is jogging with her dog in the park. She trips on a rock and twists her ankle. Emma immediately feels pain, which is a reaction to the impact of hitting the ground.
Once the fall is over, however, the immediate pain no longer necessary, so the central nervous system (CNS) recruits enzymes to slow down and stop the pain signals.
These enzymes then create special molecules called endocannabinoids, primarily anandamide and 2-AG, to get the job done.
The primary endocannabinoids: Anandamide and 2-AG (2-Arachidonoylglycerol)
Commonly referred to as the “bliss molecule,” anandamide plays a key role in the regulation of mood, reward response, and emotion.
Low anandamide levels are linked to depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Interestingly, many of the prescription medications used to treat pain and depression may be associated with increased levels of anandamide.1
Research shows that one of the main functions of 2-AG is reducing inflammation while regulating other essential functions of the immune system.
Like anandamide, 2-AG is involved in the regulation of mood, emotion, and pain perception, while also playing a role in memory, reproductive health, and sleep cycle regulation.
These endocannabinoids are known as lipid signals, which activate specific cellular receptors — kind of like a key that only opens a certain type of lock.
These “locks” are actually receptors that sit on the cells throughout the body.
In the case of a sprained ankle, like our friend Emma above, enzymes create endocannabinoids to promote appropriate inflammation at the site of injury — and she starts to experience pain relief. This process actually happens in seconds, with the body producing endocannabinoids on demand, using them, and then rapidly breaking them down.
by Matan Weil Medically reviewed by Codi Peterson, PharmD