The Endocannabinoid System: What It Is & How To Support It

mbg Health Contributor By Gretchen Lidicker, M.S.
mbg Health Contributor
Gretchen Lidicker earned her master’s degree in physiology with a focus on alternative medicine from Georgetown University. She is the author of “CBD Oil Everyday Secrets” and “Magnesium Everyday Secrets.”
Medical review by Bindiya Gandhi, M.D.
Dr. Bindiya Gandhi is an American Board Family Medicine–certified physician who completed her family medicine training at Georgia Regents University/Medical College of Georgia.

Image by MARC TRAN / Stocksy

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a signaling network in the body. It is made up of special neurotransmitters, called endocannabinoids, and their receptors, located in the brain, immune system, and nervous system. The ECS has far-reaching effects and has been connected to physiological processes that range from pain perception and blood pressure regulation to blood sugar balance, sleep quality, and digestion.

The ECS is a relatively new discovery, identified in the early 90s, and the exciting science of this system is still very much developing. But there is growing interest in what the ECS is, how it works, and how understanding and optimizing it can help support our overall health.

The endocannabinoid system 101

The endocannabinoid system is known as a "master regulatory system" and works to maintain homeostasis in the body, which is a scientific way of saying it works to keep the body in balance.

“Because emerging science is showing that the ECS is one of the central signaling and regulatory systems in the human body, new discoveries about the importance of this system are being published every day," says Robert Rountree, M.D., a renowned integrative medicine physician. "That is part of what makes the study of the ECS so exciting—the more we know about what this system is and does, the more we understand how supporting it can affect a huge range of conditions from obesity to chronic pain to addiction. The potential impact is enormous," he explains.

Although science is still uncovering exactly how the endocannabinoid system works, we do know it’s all about regulation and balance. Here are some of the ways the ECS influences the body:

  • It helps regulates pain perception 
  • It helps regulates stress
  • It helps regulates appetite
  • It helps regulates mood
  • It enhances memory
  • It modulates gut inflammation
  • It facilitates gut-brain communication

So how does it do that, exactly? The ECS is comprised of cannabinoids and their receptors.

"Cannabinoid" is the name given to any compound that interacts with the endocannabinoid system. This includes the cannabinoids found naturally in your body (called endocannabinoids) and the ones found naturally in plants (called phytocannabinoids). Let's break it down a little more:

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Endocannabinoids are the cannabinoids our bodies produce. Two of the most well-studied endocannabinoids are 2-AG and AEA. Endocannabinoids are synthesized from omega-3 fatty acids in the body.

Cannabinoids Receptors:

Cannabinoids interact with cannabinoid receptors in the body—called CB1 and CB2 receptors. Although cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body, they are primarily concentrated in the brain, nervous system, and immune system. These receptors make up a crucial part of the endocannabinoid system as a whole.

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Phytocannabinoids are plant-derived cannabinoids. The two most well-known phytocannabinoids are the cannabis-derived compounds CBD and THC, although there are at least 80 naturally-occurring cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. In fact, cannabinoids and their receptors in the ECS were actually discovered as a result of studying the cannabis plant. However, cannabinoids and endocannabinoid-supporting nutrients can be found in other plants, like hops and rosemary. Each phytocannabinoid has a unique structure and function.

What is endocannabinoid deficiency?

The ECS is connected to the regulation and health of almost every major system in the body. However, stress, poor diet, and other lifestyle choices can adversely affect endocannabinoid levels in the body. Lower levels of natural endocannabinoids or other changes in the endocannabinoid system's activity have been associated with adverse health conditions.  

This discovery prompted researchers to coin the terms "clinical endocannabinoid deficiency" and "endocannabinoid tone" to describe the health of a person's endocannabinoid system. While this is a fairly new theory, in the future endocannabinoid levels could potentially be used as a way to measure overall health.

This has led to a growing interest in the use of phytocannabinoids in the development of targeted supplements to support the ECS and optimize overall health.*

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Supporting the endocannabinoid system with hemp oil. 

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The developing science of the ECS is helping to explain why, exactly, taking a hemp oil extract—which is full of cannabinoids like CBD as well as other beneficial terpenes and compounds—is so beneficial to our health.*

In the body, phytocannabinoids, like those found in high-quality hemp oil extracts, can interact with the ECS and its receptors. 

Phytocannabinoids can influence the ECS in two ways, Rountree explains. “They either activate the receptors directly,” essentially acting like endocannabinoids themselves or “they block the enzymes that normally break down endocannabinoids,” which supports the production and preservation of the body’s own cannabinoids.*

Understanding the science of the ECS and the concept of "endocannabinoid tone" explains, in part, why phytocannabinoid-rich oils extracted from hemp are touted as beneficial for everything from stress management to sleep and digestion.*

Other ways to support the endocannabinoid system. 

While supplementing with a high-quality hemp oil extract is the best place to start, there are a few additional ways to support this system, starting with reducing stress, getting high-quality sleep, and eating a nutrient-dense diet full of real foods. In addition, cannabinoids have also been found in plants like hops, clove, and rosemary, so consuming these or supplementing with them also help support the health of your endocannabinoid system.*

In addition, our endocannabinoids are synthesized from omega-3 fatty acids, so making sure you're getting enough fatty fish and flaxseeds in your diet—or supplementing with a high-quality omega-3 supplement—can help support your body's endocannabinoid tone.*

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The bottom line.

The endocannabinoid system is a coordinated network of molecules and receptors that are involved in the regulation of homeostasis and overall health. Stress, lack of exercise and other lifestyle habits can negatively affect endocannabinoid levels. Supplementing with phytocannabinoids, like those found in hemp oil extracts, can help support the ECS.* All that said, there is still a lot to learn about the ESC, how the entire system works as a whole, but the science is promising.

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