What is the E-cannabinoid system?

By Richard Shrubb

An area of interest to medical scientists is the Endocannabinoid system (ECS) – a lot of new research has come out in the last few years that suggest new treatments for a range of disorders from Multiple Sclerosis to schizophrenia.

I put up a link to a series of research papers that were published last year, on the NORML Facebook page and found that people misunderstood its meaning. I have had two people come up to me and say “my ECS is low on cannabis so I have to top it up”. You talk to a drugs expert and he’ll laugh as hard as someone who hears a guy planning on getting pissed say “there’s too much blood in my alcohol system” for the first time…

Endocannabinoid system Endocannabinoids are cannabinoids that are made inside your body. They are known as cannabinoids because they are similar to the chemicals in cannabis you consume from the marijuana plant.

A 2004 paper suggests that endocannabinoid receptors are “densely distributed in areas of the brain related to motor control, cognition, emotional responses, motivated behaviour and homeostasis. Outside the brain, the endocannabinoid system is one of the crucial modulators of the autonomic nervous system, the immune system and microcirculation.” This means that endocannabinoids can inpact on a variety of things from moving your hands to the way you perceive the world – even the way your heart beats and your ability to fight diseases.

If you can interfere with motor control using the ECS you could help cramping with Multiple Sclerosis. This is how cannabis eases them. Dealing with emotional responses through the way the ECS works, you can control anxiety. Some people report that smoking pot controls this. Recent research in medical science may illustrate some of the reasons cannabis is therapeutic for a range of conditions, and may well be the next big thing in medical research.

The ECS was first suggested as a system of neural receptors and chemicals in the 1960’s. Scientists really got their teeth into it in around 2000 and only in the last eight years have there been a fair understanding. In science, a decade is very little. There is a lot more to learn.

Cannabinoid receptors were discovered in the body in a variety of cells, including the spinal cord, certain glands and sex organs. According to cannabis-med.org “The discovery of specific cannabinoid receptors prompted the search for putative naturally-occurring chemicals that interact with the receptors, the endocannabinoids.”

A major endocannabinoid is called anandamide (AEA). Ananda in Sanskrit for bliss. Anandamide is thus the “bliss” chemical.

A classic way of getting yourself stoned, as I do as without drugs, is get a blast of exercise. This was previously thought as endorphins which are endo-opioids, and bind to the receptors that also bind to opiates like heroin and morphine. A 2004 paper suggested that “runner’s high” is in fact a buildup of endocannabinoids in the body. “Using trained male college students running on a treadmill or cycling on a stationary bike for 50 minutes at 70–80% of maximum heart rate, we found that exercise of moderate intensity dramatically increased concentrations of anandamide in blood plasma.” This why people like me tend to do better for a blast on the hills rather than a blast on a bhong.

Research in 2009 by a New York university said that THC from cannabis binds to the same receptors in cells as AEA. “Naturally occurring AEA levels have been shown to curb pain without the negative side effects, such as motor coordination problems, of molecules like THC that can also bind the cannabinoid receptor.” This paper was promoted by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse as suggesting a way of curbing “marijuana addiction” through the development of a patch.

The same paper also suggested that if synthesized, anandamide could be used as a drug instead of THC as THC has side effects that NIDA and the DEA dislike. Since 2000, other cannabinoids have been researched that bind to the same receptor in cells such as Cannabidiol (CBD) which don’t have the same psychoactive effects that the DEA disapproves of.

In 2004, a paper published by the Oxford Journal of Alcohol and Alcoholism suggested that a range of therapies could be derived from the ECS. “These new tools have enabled the study of the physiological roles played by the endocannabinoids and have opened up new strategies in the treatment of pain, obesity, neurological diseases including multiple sclerosis, emotional disturbances such as anxiety and other psychiatric disorders including drug addiction.”

Is it true then that you’re low on endocannabinoids if you need a spliff? My response, trying to take an objective view on cannabis, is that if you think you need any drug from outside your body for a recreational purpose there is something wrong with your relationship with that drug. I used to have a problem of too much blood in my alcohol system but have dealt with that for nearly 8 years. If you need it for pain relief? That’s fine. There may one day be something understood about depression, epilepsy, psychosis, and the ECS may even be used to naturally fight cancer tumours. This differs from a craving for a joint and using it as your way out of the world.

My next piece will look at the relationship between phytocannabinoids and the ECS. What is shown to be helped, and what may be helped with weed?

Richard Shrubb

Richard Shrubb is a freelance journalist with a specific interest in medical science and sailing, for more info about Richard, see his web site www.richardshrubb.co.uk and you can follow Richard on Twitter #Shrubberz







Posted in News.


  1. “Is it true then that you’re low on endocannabinoids if you need a spliff? My response, trying to take an objective view on cannabis, is that if you think you need any drug from outside your body for a recreational purpose there is something wrong with your relationship with that drug.” mmmm I think you can say that with a hell of a lot of things that people put in to their body, coffee for example do we drink coffee because we are thirsty or to socialize or because we think we like it, before I was a medical cannabis consumer I was a recreational user, or so I thought, I used to come home after a real hard days work then go training for 3 hours then go home chill and relax with a nice fat rifter, now if I need something outside of the body to help me do this is it recreational or medicinal

  2. I always thought it was endo cannabinoids that was produced in body after exercise, it feels very like I’m stoned when after having a good 4mile walk or good run, you can get the same effect with relaxation exercises I used to get at my anti anxiety classes down at mental health centre, qigong is good for it too, they also say natural endo opioids do it too but feels more like a mixture of the 2.

  3. I agree, the arguments supporting medical use are very different from those supporting recreational use.
    However, 1) prevention is better than cure, and 2) the body often knows best what it needs to correct an imbalance; so even someone who *thinks* they’re using recreationally may actually be treating a sub-clinical condition, on sub-conscious instructions from their body…

    I’m personally interested in recent research on cannabinoids and prostate cancer, as I have an increased risk-factor on several counts. On presently-available evidence, I can rationalise smoking a preventative high-CBD reefer a day in order to help reduce my risk. Perhaps this is what my body’s been trying to tell me all these years?
    I bet the courts wouldn’t see it my way though, and would call me a recreational user looking for a medical excuse to get stoned!

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