Medical cannabis education: an introduction to the endocannabinoid system (ECS)


For more than 30 years, scientific research has been conducted on the effects of cannabis and cannabinoids on the human body. This research has allowed us to understand the effects of cannabis and cannabinoids and has given us insight into the mechanism of action for such effects.

The scientific basis for understanding the effects of cannabis and cannabinoids on the body is through a physiological system, called the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). The main function of the ECS is to maintain dynamic equilibrium in the body by regulating the various bodily functions. Our bodies naturally produce cannabinoids, these are called endocannabinoids. Throughout the body are receptors, or action sites, which are activated by endocannabinoids. When activated, these receptors facilitate the different functions of the ECS. Given that the ECS receptors are distributed throughout the body, the effects of endocannabinoids on our body can be diverse and include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Antioxidant
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Analgesic
  • Appetite and sleep regulator
  • Modulation of immune response
  • Neuroprotection
  • Memory and cognition


Just as other systems of the body can become sick, so can the ECS. “Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD)” is the name E. Russo used to group clinical conditions in which the ECS shows imbalance or failure, whether as a result of its primary dysfunction or of another disease.

Medicines, in general, work by acting in place of a naturally occurring substance within the body, to treat an organ or system in the body. For example, insulin for treating diabetes and thyroxine for treating hypothyroidism. This same method of treatment is effective in the ECS through the administration of phytocannabinoids, cannabinoids derived through plants, or synthetic cannabinoids. These compounds act on the ECS receptors resulting in functions similar or equal to those produced by the naturally occurring endocannabinoids. Cannabinoids are not the universal panacea; however, they do have multiple effects and uses due to the wide distribution of receptors throughout the human body. Due to their widespread impact, phytocannabinoids or synthetic cannabinoids are also known as “multi-impact drugs. This means that when a cannabinoid is administered to treat a symptom, it is common to see improvements in other co-existing health conditions. For example, a patient receiving cannabidiol (CBD) to treat inflammatory symptoms can also experience reductions in blood pressure, as well as improved sleep.

Even though cannabinoids have a strong safety profile, they can have negative interactions with other medicines or compounds. Therefore, it is strongly encouraged that patients discuss the use of cannabinoid medicines with a physician prior to use, so that the appropriate combination, dose and administration can be applied to achieve the desired result.


About the Author:

Dr. Raquel Peyraube is a Uruguayan Medical Doctor who graduated at the Medicine School of the Universidad de la República and a specialist in the Endocannabinology and Drug field. She was the founder and former president of the Uruguayan Society of Endocannabinology (SUEN). She is also Board Member of the International Association for Cannabinoid Medicines (IACM), and member of the International Cannabinoids Research Society (ICRS). In January 2019, Raquel joined Plena Global as Director of Public Policy and Health.

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