Meet the Endocannabinoid System: The Stats on Your Inner Thermostat

Desiree Delane - The Upside Blog |

by | Updated: May 31st, 2023 | Read time: 7 minutes

It’s not hard to bump into the word “endocannabinoid” these days — internet searches on this buzzy keyword rose 75% over the last decade! Chances are that you heard about it in reference to cannabidiol (CBD), a perpetual hot potato tossed between consumers, health experts, supplement-makers and the government.

If you’re more inquisitive, you might have learned that endocannabinoids are typically described as part of a system: namely, the endocannabinoid system. You’re probably familiar with the concept of “systems” within your body like your immune system, cardiovascular system and digestive system. So what is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

Woman Sitting on Living Room Floor Researching on Laptop What is Endocannabinoid System

You may not have learned about the ECS in Biology 101, but trust us: this topic is trending for a reason. The endocannabinoid system might just be your body’s best-kept secret for maintaining health.

Your own smart thermostat

The simplest way to understand the endocannabinoid system is to think of the thermostat in your house. Ideally, you leave your thermostat at a setting that keeps the temperature and humidity in your home at comfortable levels so you can go about your day without a second thought. Along with maintaining the ambient temperature with heating and air-conditioning, your thermostat connects to other equipment that sense and filter airborne contaminants and balance moisture levels.

If you have a smart thermostat, this metaphor works even better. This modern marvel does way more than regulate temperature; it “learns” your location, schedule, and preferences to optimize your home environment. Smart thermostats are designed and programmed to self-regulate, “remember” usage data and communicate with other systems to track and conserve energy. They might even send alerts and reminders when things go awry.

While these simplified metaphors can’t fully describe the ECS, they’re rooted in the key concept behind this biological mastermind in our bodies: homeostasis. You probably remember this term from science class which describes a steady state of balance. What goes up must come down; what goes down comes back up. Homeostasis remains the fundamental framework for understanding the hows, whens and whys of biological life and health.

What is the endocannabinoid system?

If the ECS is so critical to our understanding of human health, why are we just hearing about it? Science is never complete, and much of what we know about the body was discovered by “accident”! This uncanny story is no different.

While studying the effects of cannabis, the source of plant-based cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD, researchers realized that our bodies had built-in ways of responding to these substances. With a bit of Sherlock Holmes cause-and-effect deduction, they knew there must be native “endocannabinoids” in our bodies that would make such natural responses exist.

The brilliant discovery and exploration of the ECS has taken place just within the last few decades, and what might have been initially conceived as an interesting coincidence turned out to be a scientific game-changer in terms of helping us understand how our bodies function and how they react to external influences.

Here’s what we know:

  1. Our bodies make cannabinoids – Scientists have named them anandamide (“the bliss molecule”) and 2-Arachidonyl glycerol (2-AG). These endocannabinoids are created from arachidonic acid, an essential dietary fatty acid found in countless foods. Anandamide and 2-AG are made on demand and quickly broken down.
  2. The ECS is everywhere – If the nervous system reaches it (hint: that’s just about everything), so does the ECS. Your brain, your gut, your skin, even your immune cells – all recognize and respond to endocannabinoids. If you’ve heard of CB1 and CB2 receptors, these are the cellular docks for traveling cannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG.
  3. The ECS is necessary for life – Your ECS never sleeps. Like your home’s thermostat, it’s keeping tabs on what you feel, how you feel and where you feel it. You might like surprises, but your body? Not so much. When it’s operating as it should, the ECS offsets the unexpected by adjusting what is necessary to keep your whole body working without complaint.

The endocannabinoid system: what it’s not

As health and science researchers continue to study and define the ECS, it’s just as important to know what it’s not in addition to what it is.  While we’re likely decades away from having a complete picture, even early evidence points to a few key ways to understand the ECS.

Here’s what we can say it’s not:

  1. It’s not a physical system – Unlike most body systems, the ECS is more “metaphysical”. Think of it like a communication network between your mind and body. The ECS doesn’t act directly, and it’s embedded in other body signals (like hot/cold, happy/sad, awake/asleep).
  2. It’s not the same for everyone – While many systems in the body are consistent based on your gender and age, the non-physical and adaptive character of the ECS means yours is 100% unique. Your genetics, your location, your eating and sleeping habits and your health particulars are dynamic drivers of your inner thermostat.
  3. It’s not outside your influence – The evidence that THC and CBD interact with the ECS is proof that it’s a modifiable system. Increasing data also suggest that lifestyle has a significant say. On the positive side, that means regular exercise and mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga and deep breathing promote a healthy ECS. Likewise, high-stress and erratic schedules are not conducive to a system whose MO is consistency.

Why you should care about the endocannabinoid system

Does the ECS sound important? And exciting? The answer is a definite Yes.

In the scope of science and medicine, scientists have barely scratched the surface of the ECS. But this research darling has provided plenty of fascinating factoids to keep us on the edge of our seats. Not only does the ECS reveal more about what’s behind stable health, it’s provided clues on how things go wrong, too.

Quite a bit of research suggests that both too much and too little activity of endocannabinoids can have repercussions on health. Poor weight control, mood imbalances and recurring intestinal symptoms have all been linked to the ECS, and that’s likely just the tip of the iceburg. There’s also convincing data to suggest that endocrine-disrupting toxins from household plastics and personal care products, such as phthalates, parabens and bisphenol A (BPA), do some of their dirty work by throwing the ECS off-kilter.

Based on its comprehensive control over the body, many experts expect the ECS to become a new frontier of therapeutic medicine. Meanwhile, it seems there are plenty of ways we can promote the healthy performance of our ECS now!

Plant potential for endocannabinoid system balance

Since your body makes its own endocannabinoids, it’s purely coincidence that we’ve named the ECS after cannabis, even if the hemp plant might take a special liking to our ECS receptors. It turns out there’s a growing list of other plants that have been shown to be friends with our cannabinoid receptors, and many of them are already familiar for their health-promoting benefits.

Turmeric (curcumin), ginger and black pepper are already well-known for their antioxidant properties and immune health support, but one more way they might help maintain wellness is by enhancing ECS activity. Polyphenols in green tea, coffee and chocolate (yes!) are also on the list. Herbs such as Boswellia, maca and Ashwagandha, commonly referred to as adaptogens, are unsurprising promoters of ECS balance, based on their ability to help us adapt to change.

Finally, if you know anything about the gut microbiome, it probably won’t surprise you that these multi-benefit bugs have major sway in keeping your ECS in sync. Since the gut-brain axis links the brain, gut, nervous system and immune system, a healthy microbiome contributes to how the ECS regulates your digestion, sensation, stress and mood.

You might be wondering where that “smart thermostat” comes in – you want to set it and forget it, right? Do you need to worry about how to support the ECS? Your bliss-over-stress ECS definitely doesn’t want you to worry.

Keep doing what makes your ECS happy. A lifestyle of moderation, balance, and consistency. Stick with your healthy habits, prioritize regular rest and self-care, and trust that your ECS has your back.

These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.

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