The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
On the outside, achieving comfort and ‘balance’ may look like rearranging your furniture, visiting your mum for a cuppa or settling in for a cozy night on the couch. On the inside, things look much different. Each external event that we humans do or view results in an internal cascade of chemicals being formed and then freed. This could be a text tone triggering dopamine, oxytocin filling your lungs in a quiet forest or the cold shock of adrenaline you feel when something goes bump in the night. Since the 1920’s, scientists have known that these chemicals, our chemicals, dictate the pace of which we spend our days. They understood that without them, nothing could spark joy.
That was until a funny little plant, who’s name was too taboo to mention, lead to a discovery that would forever alter our understanding of human biology. It would eventually become known as our body’s master regulatory system. The Endocannabinoid System. ECS, for short.
A 600 million year old super-computer
In 1990, Lisa Matsuda, a scientist at the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, discovered the exact DNA sequence that defines a THC receptor. This discovery was critical in shaping our understanding of how cannabis interacts with our bodies; through the activation of cannabinoid receptors in the brain and central nervous system. Matsuda’s newfound knowledge paved the way for a series of groundbreaking discoveries, with the first endocannabinoid being found by Raphael Mechoulam, William Deane and Dr. Lumir Hanus in 1992. They dubbed their shiny new molecule Anandamide, after the Sanskrit phrase for bliss.
Thus began a molecular treasure hunt that is still being pursued to this day. By following THC down its metabolic laneway, scientists stumbled upon a strange new molecular signalling system inside the human body that before then was completely unknown. It was like dissecting open a brain, only to discover another, smaller brain who's entire purpose was to do the things that our brains couldn't. This system was named ‘The Endocannabinoid System’, after the ancient plant that lead to its uncovering.
"There are more cannabinoid receptors in our brain than there are all other receptors in the rest of our body"
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is comprised of a vast array of receptors, lining every millimetre of the brain, skin, tissues, glands, organs and immune cells. The purpose of these receptors (that we know of so far) is to respond and bind to cannabinoid compounds, and ensure homeostasis. *Homeostasis: The maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in external environment.
The endocannabinoid system is a bridge between the body and the mind. It regulates the release of neurotransmitters that make us think fast or move slow, cry tears of laughter or tears of pain. It directly regulates the physiological systems that control pain, inflammation, appetite, thermoregulation, intraocular pressure, sensation, muscle control, metabolism, sleep, stress response, motivation/reward, mood and memory. It maintains bone density and immune response. Changes in the ECS have now been directly linked to conditions such as depression, anxiety, IBS, arthritis and migraines. There are more cannabinoid receptors in the brain than there are for all neurotransmitters put together.
The most important physiological system in the human body.
The discovery of the ECS coincided with a dramatic increase in the understanding of human health, disease and biology. It can be argued that the ECS is the most essential physiological system in our bodies, yet it appears in no textbooks.
No, we do not have an endocannabinoid system because we evolved with cannabis. Cannabis itself is around 30 million years old. The ECS is thought to be over 600 million years old. I want to emphasise this: the endocannabinoid system is so much more than cannabis. Cannabis just happens to be the only tool we know of that interacts directly with this system, which is incredible enough in itself.
This one single system helps to maintain every aspect of our well-being. Up until now, it seemed that we must forever be bound by the chemical cocktail decided upon by our ECS. Now, by utilising modern day plant medicine, we are able to manipulate this system ourselves. We can take over from autopilot, tweak the dials and reach your cruising altitude. You may now take off your seatbelts.
Unfortunately, approaching your regular GP about the endocannabinoid system may not yield the expertise you’re looking for. Although we’ve had almost 30 years of dissecting this incredible system, anatomy textbooks still remain curiously devoid of its mention.
Federal legislation remains a societal handbrake.
According to Dr. Ethan Russo, a board-certified neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher, the common response to practitioners wishing to add this system into curriculum is that “there’s no room”. That in order to teach students about the ECS, they’d have to remove something else.
As Dr. Russo stated in 2020, “The failure to address ECS education appropriately is in unforgivable breach of scientific trust and a major disservice to public health”.
If you'd like to learn more about this system (which I highly recommend doing), please visit Dr. Ethan Russo's web page. This man has contributed to an astounding body of knowledge that we will be looking back upon for years and years to come.