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To understand the ECS, it first helps to understand what homeostasis is.
Basically, homeostasis is your body's efforts to keep everything in the right zone. It tries to keep your internal environment stable and optimal no matter what's going on in the environment around you. Think of all the gauges in the dashboard of a car or airplane. Those all tell the operator whether things are—or aren't—operating in the proper zone.
Just like the electronics in a car or plane, your body works continuously to monitor important levels and functions in your body. Is your temperature too high, too low, or just right? Are your hormone levels what they should be? Is your heart beating too fast? Do you need fuel or rest? Is too much of something building up in your bloodstream or inside of your cells?
When something is operating outside of the right range, your body activates the ECS to help correct it. So when you're really hot and begin to sweat, thank your ECS for working to cool you down. Stomach growling? That's your ECS helping remind you to eat because you need fuel.
The ECS does this via cannabinoid receptors found in select tissues. We have (at least) two types of cannabinoid receptors:
Through those receptors, the ECS helps regulate a lot of important functions, such as:
Then, once the endocannabinoids have done their job and brought things into balance, certain enzymes come along to break them down and prevent them from going too far and upsetting the balance in the opposite direction.
It's a precise response.
That's different from what happens if someone smokes marijuana and floods their system with cannabinoids. Then the drug has wide-ranging impacts on physiology, some of which may be beneficial while others may be harmful.
Homeostasis is essential to our health and survival, so when the ECS isn't working properly, it can cause a lot of problems for you.
Because cannabis products can stimulate activity of the ECS, they're obvious targets for potential treatments, and a ton of research is going on around the world. We also have medications made from synthetic (lab-created) cannabinoids, such as the drug nabilone.
We're already seeing a lot of research on cannabinoid-based treatments and we're likely to see more as we gain a better understanding of the system and the substances. Changes in legal status have also driven research.