The endocannabinoid system, commonly abbreviated as ECS, is a complex cell-signaling system identified in the early 1990s by researchers exploring THC, a well-known cannabinoid. Cannabinoids are compounds found in cannabis. The ECS is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom and its primary role is to maintain homeostasis in the body, which it accomplishes through a network of receptors, enzymes, and endogenous cannabinoids. The ECS is involved in regulating a variety of physiological and cognitive processes including appetite, pain-sensation, mood, memory, and in mediating the psychoactive effects of cannabis.
Two primary endocannabinoid receptors have been identified: CB1 receptors, which are predominantly found in the central nervous system and to a lesser extent in other tissues, and CB2 receptors, which are mostly found in peripheral organs, especially cells associated with the immune system. The endocannabinoids that engage with these receptors are lipid-based retrograde neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors and include anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).
Enzymes are also a critical component of the ECS, responsible for the synthesis and degradation of endocannabinoids. Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) breaks down anandamide, while monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL) breaks down 2-AG. These enzymes ensure that endocannabinoids are available when needed, but not for longer than necessary.
The functioning of the ECS can be modulated by plant cannabinoids, which is why the cannabis plant can have such a wide range of effects on the body. Research into the ECS has not only provided insight into the effects of cannabis but has also opened up new avenues for the development of novel therapeutic approaches for a variety of conditions, including chronic pain, inflammation, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and mental health disorders, to name a few. Understanding the ECS is crucial for advancing our knowledge of human physiology, and its potential as a target for pharmacotherapy is vast.