human body graphic

Few people know about the endocannabinoid system and yet it is the greatest medical discovery of the 20th Century.

How is it that one plant – cannabis – can treat so many different illnesses?

It’s a great question and luckily there is a great answer based on scientific research.

The answer lies in our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS).

Most people have yet to hear about the ECS, but as the world comes to better understand this crucial system, we continue to unlock the secrets of cannabis as medicine while understanding more about human health in general.

Here are some quick facts to get you up to speed – some of them might shock you!

#1) The endocannabinoid system was discovered in the late 1980s when researchers were studying how THC interacted with the body. For reasons we’ll get into, the ECS would soon be considered more significant than all other neuroscience discoveries combined.

#2) In the early 1990s another amazing discovery was made when researchers found two endogenous compounds that bind just like THC with the ECS. These THC-like cannabinoids, produced by our own bodies, are respectively called anandamide and AG-2.

#3) It eventually became clear that the receptors which comprised the ECS were the most prevalent neurotransmitters throughout the brain and also found in the organs, bones, and skin.

endocannabinoid system chart

The compounds in cannabis fit with our cannabinoid receptors like a lock and key.

#4) Scientists have learned that the ECS plays a direct role in homeostasis, which means that it regulates every metabolic process in the body to keep things running as they should.

As Dr. Sunil Aggarwal pointed out during the 2016 Cannabis Health Summit, the ECS plays a role in processes such as:

  • Mood regulation
  • Appetite
  • Memory
  • Inflammation
  • Pain perception
  • Muscle tone and movement
  • Extinction of traumatic memory
  • Protection of nerves and brain tissue
  • Bone growth
  • Tumor regulation
  • Baby breast-feeding reward
  • Stress management
  • Eye pressure
  • Gastrointestinal motility
  • Seizure activity
  • And many others

#5) When we don’t have enough endocannabinoids in our body, we call this clinical endocannabinoid deficiency – which medical researchers are connecting to a number of ailments including previously untreatable illnesses like irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia or migraines. When the ECS isn’t healthy, any number of things can go wrong. The cannabinoids in cannabis can helps us bolster the ECS, which is why the herb is so effective for so many different ailments.

#6) In addition to endogenous and plant-based cannabinoids, attempts have been made to stimulate the ECS with synthetic cannabinoids such as Marinol, which is the synthetic version of THC. While some patients continue to benefit from this FDA-approved drug, the side effects can be very unpleasant for others.

#7) Despite knowledge of the ECS and its relationship with cannabis, governments have maintained severe restrictions on the study and legal access of this plant.

In 2014 alone the U.S. government locked up 700,000 people for cannabis all the while knowing the importance of this plant acting on the ECS.

#8) Pharmaceutical companies meanwhile are permitted to attempt cracking the ECS in other ways, creating chemical concoctions with often times ineffective, harsh or even fatal results.

For example, between 1999 and 2014 the number of opioid prescriptions quadrupled. The number of opioid-related deaths also quadrupled during that time span according to the CDC.

#9) People have been using cannabis for over 10,000 years (without a single fatal overdose ever being recorded), and some estimates have the ECS first developing at about 500 million years ago!

#10) Many medicals school continue to overlook the ECS, however this is starting to change now that we have the first science-based medical cannabis textbook.

#11) Almost every animal, with the exception of insects, has an endocannabinoid system.

Incredible discoveries await in the field of endocannabinoid science. We hope that medical schools across the globe introduce the subject into their core curriculum so that doctors can start learning about one of the most important systems in our body.


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(Correction: a previous version of this article referenced reports that anandamide can also be found in chocolate. According to Dr. Sunil Aggarwal this is not actually true, however there are indications that chocolate may help stimulate anandamide levels in the brain.)