This post will attempt to provide readers with an intuitive understanding of this vital body system while avoiding the scientific terms for now. The Endocannabinoid system (ECS) is something we all have inside of us. The ECS is part of our normal anatomy and physiology. By the end of this post, you should have a solid understanding of the principles behind how the ECS functions.
The Origins of the ECS
First recognized in the 1990s, the various parts of the ECS were subsequently discovered, and the system was named. The naming actually comes from the cannabis plant, as the phytocannabinoids were found before the natural human equivalents were found. Researchers knew that phytocannabinoids (like THC and CBD) acted on something in the body to produce effects. This led to the discovery of the cannabinoid receptors. These receptors and eventually, the entire system, was named after the cannabis plant terms.
How does the ECS work?
The ECS acts as a moderator of the nervous system and other body systems. It is like a feedback system that adjusts activity. Similar to how the iris responds to light by closing the pupil. The ECS reduces activity and neural synapses. The synapses are the junctions between nerve cells that act as communication channels. Signals are transmitted through compounds and electrical activity along with the nervous system.
The ECS also exists inside of cells, and all over the body. It serves a moderating role throughout various systems. Basically, every cell we have looked at has parts of the ECS inside of it. The system regulates the functioning inside each cell, as they attempt to balance resources and respond to signals.
Why did it take so long?
You may be wondering why it took so long to discover the ECS. The short answer is that global drug laws prevented research from occurring. Another factor is the advancement of technology need to identify these tiny compounds. We will focus on the significant problem that was and is the lack of legal cannabis research. One man decided that Cannabis needed to be studied, and didn’t let international laws stand in his way. This man is responsible for the vast majority of initial discoveries around the ECS, along with the work of his team inside his lab.
This man’s name is Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. He is an Israeli organic chemist who decided that Cannabis must be studied. He was able to obtain some marijuana from the police and transported it back to his lab by public bus. This was unlawful, as Dr. Machoulam did not have permission or a permit to carry the drug for research purposes. Luckily, he was able to ask forgiveness instead of getting denied permission in the first place.
After years of tireless work, Dr. Mechoulam identified the compounds in Cannabis. In the years after that, the corresponding ECS inside all of us were found. I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Mechoulam briefly and even hear him speak in 2019. He was nearly 90-years-old at the time, but full of energy and passion for cannabis research. His work helped us get to where we are now, better late than never.
In a future article, I’ll speak more about my interactions with Dr. Mechoulam and the great work that he did and continues to do. He is someone worth respecting for moving the scientific field forward in-spite of laws standing in his way. To make sense of his monumental discovery, the rest of this article will provide a real-world example. By the end, you will have a basic understanding of the role of the ECS on our neural signaling.
Pressing on Your Toe
If you were to press on your toe, you would cause the opening of channels that impact the chemical environment around the nerve cells. This activity triggers an electrochemical signal inside nerve cells. This signal is how nerves communicate, from our toes to our heads.
If you then continued to press for a few moments, the signals would slow down, and the sensation will become more pleasant. This action can broadly be considered to be partly due to the moderating role of the ECS. At each of those junctions, special compounds are waiting inside of the receiving neuron. This nerve cell will release these compounds after the signal comes through it and continues onward.
When these compounds are released, they flow toward the other nerve cell. This is in the opposite direction of the signal coming up from your toe to your head. Once they travel across the gap, they find receptors, kind of like ports, which they dock at. They are then carried across to the other side of the nerve cell membrane.
Once inside this nerve cell, these compounds influence the environment. Remember that it is the first nerve cell we are now inside. The one impacted directly by the pressure on the toe. Now at the cellular level, only a moment after you initially squeezed that toe, the environment is still affected by the change of compounds in that area. This is the roughly identical situation to a moment ago when the first signal was sent up that cell. But the message may not trigger again.
This is because of that compound that traveled backward into that first nerve cell and changed the environment. This impact (we don’t need to get into details) reduced the likelihood that the same environment would produce the same effect. This is why, after a few moments, sensations like pain seem to rapidly subside.
One of the reasons why the ECS impacts so many aspects of our health and wellbeing is because it serves this general function everywhere. From nerves communicating to energy production inside of each cell. Throughout our body, the ECS is constantly moderating signals so that we can manage the onslaught of incoming stimuli. Right now, you are probably sitting, and don’t feel the pressure on your butt, or even the pants you wear. This is because after initially feeling these sensations, they are moderated down so that we can focus on other aspects around us or thoughts going on inside of our heads. Like the gates around a damn, these can be lowered or raised to increase or decrease the flow of water through them.