The Endocannabinoid System and why so few people know about it
If you’d asked me a year ago about the endocannabinoid system, I would have stared at you blankly while uttering a confused ‘endo-what?’
That’s not to say I’m someone who has no clue about health. As an ex-bodyworker, my training involved learning about all the major systems in the body, or so I thought. But before entering the world of medical cannabis, the endocannabinoid system just wasn’t on my radar.
And I’m not alone. Most people I know have no knowledge of this integral biological system. And like me, with even the briefest of explanations, their eyes light up in wonder and curiosity. It’s as if suddenly everything makes sense, with the proverbial ‘aha’ moment – “Oh right, that’s why cannabis helps so many conditions’.
So, a year into my cannabis immersion, I wanted to get to the bottom of the question: why do so few people know about the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?
Scientists discover endocannabinoid system through studying Cannabis
A first clue lies in the manner in which the endocannabinoid system1 was discovered. Since the 1960s, scientists had been studying the active compounds in cannabis; and it was through their quest to understand how THC worked in the body that they found the first cannabinoid receptor in 1988.
This was followed by the identification of the body’s own cannabis-like chemicals that, like THC, fitted into the cannabinoid receptors causing physiological changes in the body. The resulting communication network located primarily in the brain, central nervous and immune system became known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Its role – to act as a biological regulator, ensuring that balance is achieved in the body.
The ECS is implicated in everything from chronic pain, tumor growth, metabolic diseases, anxiety, and epilepsy. Scientists have seen that compounds within the cannabis plant interact with the ECS, and in the process ease symptoms such as nausea during chemotherapy, chronic pain and can even reduce epileptic seizures.
Schedule 1 status restricts research
And yet, these very compounds are classified as having no accepted medical use2, a decision made prior to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system.
According to Greg Gerdeman, Assistant Professor in Biology at Eckerd College in Florida, “The thing is that the schedule 1 status is so extreme that it creates all of these barriers to research. The DEA has stonewalled researchers to be able to look at herbal cannabis and study its outcomes. For this reason, just the whole intensity of the scheduling has made it difficult to make progress.”3
By progress we can talk in terms of understanding the full extent of the workings of the ECS, researching therapeutic properties of cannabis that are not related to its abuse, and getting herbal cannabis-based medication through all the appropriate protocols; such as double-blind, randomized, three-stage clinical trials.
Doctors lack knowledge
This lack of herbal cannabis medication on the market is a major contributing factor to why so little is known about the ECS in medical circles. According to Gerdeman, an average doctor in the US gets much of their information about advances in medicine from drug reps who have a product under development.
Right now, due in part to the schedule 1 status, selling herbal cannabis products is not on the pharmaceutical companies’ agenda, and so the only information that reaches doctors about cannabis is regarding its potential harm.
However, in states and countries where medical cannabis has been legalized and commercial cannabis-based products are on the market; doctors are clamoring for more information about the ECS and the medicinal uses of cannabis. In Israel, for instance, the Ministry of Health’s Medical Cannabis Unit trains doctors so that they can prescribe medical cannabis for patients with qualifying conditions.
Is the endocannabinoid system taught at medical school?
But what about the doctors of the future? Will the endocannabinoid system feature on their med school curriculum?
Back in 2013, David B. Allen MD commissioned a survey in which all the medical schools in the US were asked whether they included the ECS within their syllabus.4 Only 13% were found to teach it in any way, with Dr. Allen declaring that “research and education of medical students involving the ECS is being intentionally restricted by politics.”
This finding sent shock waves through the medical cannabis community, with many wondering what hope there was for an integration of medical cannabis into the healthcare system if most health professionals were unaware of the physiological system underpinning its effectiveness.
Moving in right direction
Thankfully, four years on, there are signs of progress. According to Gerdeman: “Awareness is growing. The neuroscience textbook that I teach my undergraduate neuroscience course with, and is the most popular undergraduate neuroscience textbook … has three pages on endocannabinoids. It cites my work and others calling it, ‘The most exciting discovery in cell signaling in the past several years.’”
In other countries such as the UK and Spain, the endocannabinoid system is taught in many if not all medical schools, although surprisingly in Israel, it is not.
Could more knowledge of the ECS change cannabis scheduling?
So, whatever way you look at it, the therapeutic future of both the endocannabinoid system and the cannabis plant are defined by what is essentially outdated drug scheduling. But could a greater knowledge of the ECS allow cannabis to come out of its 50-year hinterland?
Gerdeman thinks this could be the case. “Discovering the ECS is liberating cannabis from the schedule 1 paradigm where it hasn’t really ever belonged,” he says. “And naturally it feeds into the narrative that cannabis in some shape or form could be beneficial to so many different people.”
It would follow then that as more knowledge of the endocannabinoid system seeps out of the research labs into the knowledge bank of doctors and the public at large, a change in scheduling of cannabis might just follow.
So, it’s time to go forth and publicize our neglected, biological best friend, the endocannabinoid system. Get informed, spread the word, and let’s help give the ECS the recognition it deserves.
About the Author:
Mary Biles is a British freelance writer-blogger and wandering spirit, mostly based in the Andalusian capital of Seville, Southern Spain. She is passionate about the healing potential of cannabis and is currently a guest blogger for CBD oil innovators Endoca.
Thank you for writing such a knowledgeable article.
So glad you enjoyed reading the article. I certainly enjoyed writing it.
great article, not a lot of people bringing awareness about the endocannabinoid system, schools should be teaching medical student a lot more about it because how can a doctor prescribe medicinal marijuana to a patient without having an understanding of the ECS?
Thanks so much for your comments Jordan. I think all those that know even a little bit about the endocannabinoid system have to go out and spread the word. Of course it needs to be taught at medical school as well and incorporated in doctors continued professional development. All power to the ECS!
Excellent Article..Have you investigated this :
Thanks Rose. Glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, it’s a curious state of affairs when a patent is taken out by the US federal government on something that has no accepted therapeutic value.
Personally, I could kiss the person who had the fore thought to create that patent! Because the federal government holds that patent cannabis is guaranteed by law to be the property of all the people the government represents, making sure that no one has the ability to claim exclusive property rights to the plant. If it weren’t for the patent, cannabis would be the exclusive property of “Big Pharma” and world cancer rates would still be climbing out of control years later…..
Strangely it’s not taught in Israeli medical school curriculum while it was discovered there in ’88. Strange and ironic to say the least.
Hi Jay, I totally agree. I spoke to Michael Dor, the head of the medical cannabis unit in Israel and asked him if the ECS was taught at medical school. I was as surprised as you were when he said it wasn´t.
Great article Mary! AAMC is working to educate doctors about the ECS. https://fundrazr.com/MedicalCannabis?ref=ab_5iN7f
So glad you enjoyed the article Arthur. I´m gonna check out your crowdfunding campaign… would be great to write an article about it!
It is no wonder then, that doctors do not prescribe or recommend cannabis for their patients. Basically they know little to nothing about it. I’m sure a few have researched, but most stick with what they were taught in medical school, don’t you think? Very Very good article!! I learned something.
Thank you for such a wonderful article. I have found it to be quite an educational tool for my position as Medical Outreach Coordinator for Ohio Norml.
That´s great Eleanor you´ve found the article so useful. And glad it will be of use in your work. All the best, Mary
Hi Kathryn, yes the two are indelibly linked, but even without the context of cannabis, I think it´s important doctors know about the ECS as it has an impact on all parts of our health.
Am happy medical cannabis is getting the attention it deserves.
Hi Charles, yes little by little, we´ll get the truth out there. All the best, Mary
It’s amazing when I talk with my nurse colleagues how many of them either don’t know it even exists or dismiss it either out of ignorance or fear. Unfortunately we will not enjoy recognition within the healrh care community until it’s legal. Understandably, the professional organizations (AMA, ANA, etc won’t recognize it no matter what the science because it can not be endorsed until the federal laws change. Physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and all medical professionals are held to standards set by their respective organizations. Therefore the law must be changed before we see significant changes within healthcare professionals. Colleges loose federal funding the first time a bureaucrat doesnt like something they did. Remember the guys who voted it illegal are now senior leadership on the hill. They are the ones who pulled it out of the bill for Vets last september before Obama signed without it included despite passing both House and Senate…. so you can see why School administrators run scared when their funding is jeopardized. Its not right but its reality! The best we can do is keep takling and teaching anyone who will listen.
Absolutely. Let’s create a critical mass James.
Thank you for taking the time to teach others about this herb that has so many good effects and benefits to people such as myself. Even though it’s not legal in my state I look for it to be next year. Thank you again for such a great and helpful article.
My pleasure Dwayne, glad you found it useful.
I would live to discuss this on my talk show #mettwithayesha
How does CBD fit into this?
Hi Val, scientists know a lot less about how CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system compared to THC because it has low binding affinity with both CB1 and CB2 receptors. But Dr Ethan Russo, who has developed the endocannabinoid system deficiency theory suggests that it does improve endocannabinoid tone. One reason is that CBD inhibits FAAH, the enzyme responsible for breaking down anandamide – one of the key endocannabinoids. So the theory is that by taking CBD, anandamide which is produced on demand, can remains for longer in the body. Hope that helps.
Thanks for this article! I am so frustrated by the laws around cannabis especially in a medical instance. I would love to be more involved in the medical cannabis movement so if these anything you can recommend we do I would love to hear it!
Hi Melanie, as you’re based in the UK, if you’re not already you could sign up to Clear Cannabis Law Reform . As a fellow Brit it is extra specially frustrating in the UK. Also just go tell everyone you know about the endocannabinoid system… together we can make a difference. Good luck!
Great article thanks for sharing Mary great work ?
Thanks for leaving your comment of appreciation Shannon.
I’ve been smoking it..helps me with my stress but your article is informative and nice! Keep up the good work miss (:
Thanks Jake for sharing your experience. And glad you enjoyed the article.
The only place to find cannabinoids besides a cannabis plant is in human breast milk because the mother’s ECS is literally creating the child’s immune/nervous system. Eating or juicing the leaves of the plant make the vegetable a superfood for being healthy. Popeye should’ve had cannabis in his can!
I would love to be able to juice raw cannabis leaves! thanks for your great comments Joe.
The more i learn about the endo system, the more i feel i understand the way it works in my body.
Excellent write-up we’ve known for years since the 60s pot is a syrebral protector. The feds make money off of looking at it as they would with Heroin they make money off of keeping it illegal and legal it’s all about money it always has been about money. As soon as the Feds can figure out how to make money from it.. it will be legal and the most expensive drug ever known to mankind
Great article that I enjoyed reading and learning more about the properties of. We are on the verge of getting cannabis legalized in the state of Oklahoma in America. We just passed a medical bill and have signed a petition to legalize recreational use. The state officials pushed back against our vote, they also found out that we spoke loudly about what we wanted and shut down the officials.
I look forward to learning more about this amazing plant from your future articles.
There is no way that if doctors would have demanded the endocannabinoid system be taught, that cannabis be available and rescheduled that they wouldn’t have gotten this changed 20 years ago. Truth is they STILL don’t want it taught or known cause it would eat a huge chunk out of there big pharma kickbacks. Doctors know exactly what they are doing and will kill their patients and make their lives hell on earth without a thought as long as they keep getting paid.
Hi Diane, I’m not sure that all doctors think in that way. I have spoken to a few GPs in the UK and they just didn’t know the ECS existed and most unfortuately have believed without questioning the false anti-cannabis propaganda. I do think most doctors go into the profession wanting to help people, but I don’t think they are trained to question the status quo. Those that do end up leaving the profession or being discredited.
Diane is exactly right unfortunately , the massive pharmas OWN GPs here in Australia and along with the government are determined to stall anything to do with cannabis and its medical use for as long as they can . They run articles in our newspapers saying GPs can now prescribe it , its amazing look how modern we are and how we are leading the way forward and then when you enquire with any GP in our area you quickly find out that EACH patient has to fill out two hours of paperwork to apply for permission to access the oil and that no GP is going to give anyone a two hour consultation ! So the whole thing is just a pack of lies designed to make the politicians look like they are doing something about helping sufferers who desperately need the oil but in reality are just dishing out false hope and once again letting the public down and doing what they are told by the big pharmas and round and round we go getting nowhere and meanwhile the suffering who could benefit from the oil suffer from the pharmas drugs and their debilitating side effects or even die from them . Denying those who need what is TRULY a gift from god is SO wrong !!!
Hi Bill, we are experiencing exactly the same in the UK at the moment. Medical cannabis has been approved, but doctors have been warned not to prescribe it. In fact this is something I’d like to write about… perhaps we can chat about what’s happening in Australia.