The Endocannabinoid System

March 27, 2019


By Jeff G. Konin, PhD, ATC, PT, FACSM, FNATA

You have heard of the endocrine system. The digestive system. The circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems of the body. Have you ever heard of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) of the body? Most anatomy and physiology books identify 12 distinct human body systems, of which the ECS is not one of. In fact, surveys show that only 13% of medical schools teach about the ECS. Furthermore, an even greater number of physicians and other health care providers practicing today were not formally trained about the ECS.

To be fair, the ECS was only discovered in the 1990’s.

We have known about the ECS for about 25 years. It was first discovered in the 1990's by Lisa Matsuda at the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Matsuda first described the structure and functional expression of the cannabinoid receptor, CB-1. It turns out that the ECS is comprised of a complex network of cannabinoid receptors located throughout the central and peripheral nervous system. Since then other cannabinoid receptors, specifically CB-2 found in the immune and digestive system, and many of the major organs, have been discovered.

What does it mean to us that the body has another system with its own receptors? To be honest, we still don’t know exactly how the ECS works. However, what we are learning, is that when the system does not work it effects important physiological functions and individuals’ ability to maintain a homeostatic life. Specifically, an improper functioning ECS can impact sleep, appetite, pain, inflammation, memory, mood, and even reproduction.

Fun fact: all animals have an endocannabinoid system. Patients testimonials reveal improvement from a multitude of diseases (cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, fibromyalgia) after trying some form of endocannabinoids. There is actually a name for the condition when the ECS is not working as it should: Clinical Endocannabinoid System Deficiency Syndrome.

Imagine if you will that the cannabis plant contains CB-1 and CB-1, acting as a supplement to what one normal body would produce within the ECS. This can be thought of in a similar way to that of the endocrine system. When the body does not produce insulin to break down blood sugar, adverse symptoms seen with diabetes appear. A patient who is unable to regulate blood sugar levels through daily diet and exercise may need to inject insulin. A body that does not produce adequate amounts of CB-1 and CB-2 may find therapeutic effects from the CB-1 and CB-2 found in the hemp plant.

While we lack an abundance of randomized clinical trials and evidence to support the early anecdotal reports and clinical theories, there is something to this that deserves further exploration. We have always been taught to “listen to our patients”. There is no better time to do this than now as our patients are not waiting for scientific evidence to find relief for their ailments.

Editor's note: Here's a link to a story that provides additional coverage on the endocannabinoid system and research on how cannabis interacts with this system.


Dr. Jeff G. Konin is the Vice President for Global Education and Research at AIB in Largo, Florida and President of Konin Consulting, LLC in Clearwater Florida.  He is a frequent speaker on various topics related to cannabis.for healthcare providers, student-athletes, educators, and administrators. He can be reached at [email protected].

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