Explaining the Endocannabinoid System

The Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System

The scientific journey toward the understanding and application of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) began in 1895, when three researchers isolated and identified cannabinol (CBN), a plant-derived cannabinoid known for its anticonvulsant and anti-inflammatory properties. It took 45 years to identify the next, CBD. It took some two decades to define the chemical structure of CBD (1963), and another year to isolate and identify THC (1964). The ability to isolate these cannabinoids was the first step that would lead to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system. 

By 1988, the first cannabinoid receptor was found in the brain of a rat. Scientists then used a synthetic form of THC to treat severe nausea and wasting syndrome and map cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Through this process, they discovered the receptors were located primarily in the regions responsible for mental and physiological processing: controlling emotions, higher cognition, memory and motor coordination. This discovery unlocked the ideas that cannabinoids played a larger part in our physiology than previously thought and that organisms must produce their own cannabinoids.  

In 1990, scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health outlined the DNA sequence of the THC-sensitive receptors in the rat’s brain. The chain was named the CB1 receptor. In 1993, a second cannabinoid receptor was found. Dubbed CB2, this receptor was widely seen in the gut, organs, blood vessels and lymph cells. During the same span, scientists discovered two naturally-produced (within the body) cannabinoids: Anandamide (aka the Bliss Molecule) in 1992 and 2-AG in 1995. 

The Endocannabinoid System Defined

Endocannabinoid System diagram by C4 HealthlabsUpon the discoveries of the abovementioned receptors molecules, it became time to name the system of interlocking mechanisms. In homage to the plant that played the role in its discovery, the Endocannabinoid System was named.

The endocannabinoid system is often referred to as the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health. Comprised of several interlocking mechanisms, the system – when working in harmony – establishes a healthy immune, digestive and nervous system, among other bodily functions. Its mechanisms include: 

  • Enzymes responsible for creating and destroying cannabinoids
  • Cannabinoids (endogenous/endocannabinoids and exogenous/cannabinoids)
  • Cannabinoid Receptors


As a system, the combined components of the ECS regulate body processes and functions. Endocannabinoids and externally-produced cannabinoids interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors to help the body achieve homeostasis, or balance. Just as the receptors are found in different areas of the body, they perform roles that facilitate equilibrium and proper function within those locations.

CB1 receptors are located mainly in the central nervous system, connective tissues, glands and organs. CB2 receptors can mostly be found within the immune system. These locales aren’t absolute, however, and many tissues throughout the body are known to contain both CB1 and CB2 receptors. The total number of endocannabinoid receptors in the body is believed to be greater than all the other neuromodulatory receptors combined, including receptors for serotonin and dopamine.

Neuron Receptor diagram by C4 Healthlabs

Understanding the Endocannabinoid System 

Research indicates that the ECS works to balance the body’s immune and central nervous systems, and that your body produces endocannabinoids in order to trigger essential body functions and patterns that result in such balance. When the ECS performs in harmony, it regulates all the basic functions and patterns of our body including appetite, immune function, inflammation, memory, metabolism, mood, pain, and sleep. It also manages neuroprotection and development as well as reproduction and digestion. In all, it is a driving factor in our everyday expressions and experiences, intrinsically linked to our health and happiness. 

While the body naturally produces the cannabinoids necessary to promote equilibrium within our physiology, like any system, it can become deficient and/or weak. When we do not produce the molecules necessary to facilitate homeostasis within our ECS, we can supplement them with external options to facilitate strength building and balance.

Supplementing the Endocannabinoid System with CBD

When introduced to the body, hemp-derived cannabinoids (in the form of CBD oil) work in conjunction with the body’s endocannabinoid receptors to establish the equilibrium typical with a strong ECS.

As research has shown, cannabidiol is one of the most beneficial phytocannabinoids for the human body. This is due to its relationship with CB2 receptors. CB2 receptors are more often found on immune cells, in the gastrointestinal tract, reproductive organs and in the peripheral nervous system. In all, these receptors regulate sleep, appetite and digestion, mood, motor control, immune function, reproduction and fertility, pleasure and reward, pain, memory and temperature regulation. So the more stable these receptors are, the more balanced the system as a whole will be.