The Amazing Endocannabinoid System

How Our Bodies Self-Regulate … and More

When I began to look at the potential medical uses of cannabis the list seemed ridiculously long and the skeptic in me piped up.  Loudly.  How can a plant be a panacea for so many conditions – Epilepsy,  Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis, Osteoporosis, to name a few?

The answer lies in a long-known tenet of healthcare that surfaces again and again when studying cannabis science.  It’s a concept that I teach my fledgling vocational nursing students on their first day of anatomy and physiology, a humbling, awe-inspiring act of nature called “homeostasis.”

Homeostasis is the body’s default response to return to normal, no matter what.  Despite the abuses we impose upon ourselves, our bodies doggedly try to return to a state of balance and stability by mending, healing, and releasing whatever substances are needed to fix, build, eliminate and finally restore whatever is askew.  No need to call a plumber for a too-full bladder, a landscaper for a scraped elbow or the Roto Rooter™ man for a belly full of gummy bears.  For the most part, Mother Nature attends to her own, day in and day out.

What I didn’t realize, however, is that each of us has helper molecules that keep vital functions in check – important functions like sleep, appetite, mood, motor control, immunity, memory, pain and temperature control.   In turn, these molecules, called endocannabinoids, help to return the body to homeostasis.

Meet the amazing endocannabinoid system (aka the ECS)!


An Endocannabinoid molecule

You may notice that endocannabinoids got their name from cannabis and that’s because plant cannabinoids were the first to be discovered. Endo means within, and cannabinoid refers to a compound that fits into cannabinoid receptors.  (For more on cannabinoids please see the last Cannabis Nurse missive). Endocannabinoids, like plant cannabinoids, bind to and activate cannabinoid receptors. However, endocannabinoids are produced naturally by cells in the human body.

So the Endocannabinoid System is like an efficient internal machine that interlocks receptors with cannabinoids and endocannabinoids.  Another huge benefit worth mentioning is that the ECS tidies up after itself with metabolic enzymes that break down the endocannabinoids after they are used.  Pretty nifty, eh?

The reason that plant cannabinoids have psychoactive and medicinal effects within the body is, in large part, because we have the endocannabinoid system that they can interact with. For example, THC makes a person high because it activates the cannabinoid receptor CB1 within the brain.  But endocannabinoids can also activate CB1!

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably raising your hand with this question:  if we manufacture our own magic molecules in the form of endocannabinoids, why aren’t we constantly high without the help of a plant cannabinoid like THC?

The answer is that plant cannabinoids interact differently with cannabinoid receptors than the body’s natural endocannabinoids.  Even more importantly, the metabolic enzymes that quickly break down and eliminate endocannabinoids don’t work on THC, so THC lingers on in the system while the presence of natural endocannabinoids is transient.  So yes, they are our body’s (short term) THC – but only until homeostasis is achieved; it’s an on-demand system that fixes whatever is broken and moves on. Sorry!

While a healthy ECS system doesn’t alter your psychoactive state, it is clearly a big part of optimal health.  Even better, there are ways to bolster your own endocannabinoid production without using plant cannabis, most of which have to do with diet, exercise and stress reduction.   Combing the internet for such ideas resulted in a long legal-pad page of scribblings, some pragmatic (fish oil consumption), some baffling (cold showers) and some exotic (magnolia tea).  I put this list into my look-at-this-later file.

Musing over endocannabinoids has upended a few of my own long-held beliefs about how I see the body’s ability to self-correct and how it might be augmented by the use of cannabis when our own mechanisms fall short. But, there is a larger lesson here.  An emerging model of health called “Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency” suggests that a mal-functioning ECS may underlie some hard-to-treat conditions such as migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia.  If that’s even a little bit true, then we healthcare practitioners have some redefining to do in the big-picture model of what constitutes good health.  It’s time to give medical cannabis a second – and very serious – look.

Meredith Patterson, RN, BSN, CRRN


Meredith Patterson is a nurse specializing in neurology. She writes about the brain and brain health at her blog –



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