Endocannabinoid System: An Overview and Brief History


For thousands of years, the cannabis plant has been used medicinally. In fact, cannabis was the most prized of all the natural medicines in many of the ancient cultures, including the Greeks and the Chinese. However, as well as it was reported to work, how it did so remained a mystery for centuries. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the endocannabinoid system was discovered and the mechanism of how cannabinoids work in the human body was finally known. Well, like any good mystery, there were various clues leading up to that discovery for several decades but no one really put these clues all together into one cohesive report until the late 1990s.

The endocannabinoid system is very complicated, and frankly, difficult to fully understand unless you happen to have a Ph.D. in biochemistry, human physiology, or a related field. However, we want to provide you with a simplified overview of the endocannabinoid system because this is the system through which CBD and other cannibinoids in our full spectrum cannabis oils work their magic!

CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) were first identified in the late 1960s. These discoveries were the first major breakthrough that eventually led to the understanding that the endocannabinoid system even existed. In research that followed, scientists knew that CBD and THC interacted with the cell membrane but they did not know there were specialized receptors in the cell membranes that CBD and THC interacted with in a very specific way.

It wasn’t until 1988 that a technique called radiolabeling was used to determine that THC had a very specific binding site in the cell membranes of the rat brain. Two years later, this receptor site was completely mapped out and the receptor site was dubbed CB1. It was also found to exist in humans and in most animals. CB1 receptors were found in very high density in the brain and these CB1 receptors were found to be the preferred binding site for THC. Shortly after this, using cloning techniques to find similar receptors, another receptor was identified. This one was dubbed CB2 and was found to be heavily concentrated in the immune system, especially in the liver. This receptor was the favored binding site of CBD.

As even more research was done, it was discovered that the human body is capable of creating molecules that function very similarly to CBD and THC in the endocannabinoid system. The first of these to be discovered was anandamide, which like THC, prefers to bind with the CB1 receptors. The word “anandamide” means “bliss” in the ancient language of Sanskrit which seems to reflect how many feel after they take THC. Later a molecule called 2-AG (2-arachidonoylglycerol) was discovered to function very similarly to CBD and prefer to bind with CB2.

Thus, we have two molecules, anandamide and 2-AG, produced by the human body that interact in much the same way with the CB1 and CB2 receptors as do the primary cannabinoids in the cannabis plant! We need to say something here about terminology. Anandamide and 2-AG are called endocannabinoids because they are created “endo,” i.e inside the body. CBD and THC are called simply cannabinoids which are obviously named after the cannabis plant. They are also sometimes called phytocannabinoids because they are cannabinoids that come from plants. Keep in mind that there are cannabinoids in many other plants that are used in natural medicine, such as echinacea, but they are more concentrated in the cannabis plant.

Just because CBD and THC are the most studied cannabinoids by far, you should know that there are many other cannabinoids and these too have been found to interact with the endocannabinoid system, and therefore, show great promise for therapeutic uses. Likewise, many other endocannabinoids have been found but just not studied as much as anandamide and 2-AG. However, the trend recently has been to take a closer look at the potential benefits of all of the the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant and find out exactly how they interact with the endocannabinoid system.

The detective game continues with endcannabinoid system. Major clues show up and then have to be pieced together to make new discoveries. For example, some cannabinoids in full spectrum CBD oil interact with specific areas of the cell membrane that have not yet been named as official receptors in the endocannabinoid system. However, this serves as a major clue that those sites might be receptor sites so a flurry of research occurs to more fully map the site and look for sequence similarities to CB1 and CB2. In that process, additional endocannabinoids can be discovered as well.

Right now, what we know about the endocannabinoid system can be thought of like a partially completely jigsaw puzzle. We’ve got all the border pieces connected so we have a framework of what we’re dealing with. We’ve also got significant enough portions of the puzzle put together that an overall image is emerging. However, we also have significant pieces missing which means it’s all the more intriguing what will be discovered next. For example, scientists are on the verge of identifying new receptor sites and understanding more fully how cannabinoids from cannabis interact with those novel receptors and how that affects our bodies.

It’s already been revealed in the research that cannabinoids can affect the body in amazing ways from decreasing inflammation to killing cancerous tumors. Stay tuned for more amazing discoveries to come our way over the next decade and in rapid succession!