What Is The Endocannabinoid System And How Does It Work?


Scientist first discovered the endocannabinoid system while trying to understand the effects of cannabis in humans. While much remains unknown about this system, what is well known is that our body is full of cannabinoid receptors and produces corresponding molecules which cause the physical and psychological effects of cannabis in our bodies. Ever wondered what makes cannabis so effective for your body? Well, it is precisely this system!

Since its discovery, the endocannabinoid system has become a prime target of medical research due to its vast effects and therapeutic potential on the human body.



The term "endo" is short for endogenous, meaning originating or produced within an organism, tissue or cell. Cannabinoid refers to the group of compounds that activate this particular system.

Imagine cell receptors in the body as a set of locks, each with a set of corresponding keys: chemical molecules called "agonists". Each time an agonist is bound to a cell receptor it relays a message, giving the cell an instruction. The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is made up of two primary cell receptors. CB1 and CB2. The agonists or keys for these receptors are cannabinoids that are produced by the body, as well as cannabinoids that come from outside the body such as from cannabis.

The Endocannabinoid System


Cannabinoids are the body’s natural chemical messenger. While there are many, they all fall into two categories. "Endogenous" and "Exogenous".

  • Endogenous: "endo" means originating inside the body. Endogenous cannabinoids are produced naturally by the body and interact with cannabinoid receptors to regulate basic functions such as mood, appetite, pain, sleep, and more.
  • Exogenous: these are cannabinoids which come from outside the body. Commonly found in cannabis such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), when consumed they interact with the ECS to produce physical and psychological effects inside the body.


The endocannabinoid system is the name for a series of cell receptors that respond to certain kinds of agonists. Two primary cell receptors make up the ECS: Cannabinoid Receptor 1 (CB1) and Cannabinoid Receptor 2 (CB2). The keys for these receptors are called endocannabinoids, or cannabinoids. Cannabinoid receptors respond to various cannabinoids and in turn produce distinctive effects within the body.


Receptors that are found throughout the human body, but mostly exist in the brain and spinal cord. They are concentrated in areas which are associated with the behaviours they impact, such as in the hypothalamus; which is involved in appetite regulation, and the amygdala; which plays a role in memory and emotional processing. They are also found in nerve endings where they can act to reduce the feeling of pain.


Typically concentrated in immune cells and the peripheral nervous system. When activated, they work to reduce inflammation as an immune response which is largely believed to play a role in the body's immune response to diseases and certain medical conditions.



Cannabinoids produced naturally by the human body are called endocannabinoids. They are created within the body fatty acids such as omega-3. The two major ones that are well understood today are:

  • Anandamide: The first endocannabinoid discovered by scientists. Its name comes from the Sanskrit word "ananda" meaning bliss. It is found at higher concentrations around areas of the body away from the brain.
  • 2-AG (2-aeachidonoyl glycerol): Highest concentrations exist in the brain.

These endocannabinoids are called "short-order" neurotransmitters, which means they are only synthesized when the body signals that they are required. They are swiftly broken down by enzymes such as FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) and MAGL (monoacylglycerol lipase) after their release.

There are many more endocannabinoids such as noladin ether, virodhamine, and N-arachidonoyl dopamine (NADA). However their role in the body has not yet been fully discovered.

Your body produces endocannabinoids in order to trigger essential bodily functions and patterns. Ethan Russo, a Senior adviser at GW Pharmaceuticals believes “deficient cannabinoid levels may be the underlying cause of numerous conditions.” This could quite possibly cause severe medical conditions relating to the endocannabinoid system such as chronic pain or fibromyalgia.



Contrasting with endocannabinoids; exogenous cannabinoids such as ones you take in from consuming cannabis enter the body and stay there for far longer periods of time.

This has the effect of activating the endocannabinoid system (ECS) to a greater extent, allowing it to work at a stronger and more productive rate than it usually would be.


Research shows that the cannabinoid THC binds to both receptors (CB1 and CB2) and has the effect of activating them in the same way an endocannabinoid would.

The effects of THC are commonly considered to be psychological, but the compound works far beyond getting you high and is proven to help with chronic pain, nausea, appetite, asthma and glaucoma. In addition, THC is proven to work against cancer and interestingly, it even has a symbiotic effect on the body when consumed with CBD.


CBD does not actually bind to any receptors but instead works by inhibiting the enzyme FAAH which prevents and slows down the breakdown of anandamide - possibly one the most crucial endocannabinoids in the body. The result is a build up of anandamide in the brain.

While we are well aware that THC has an obvious psychological effect on the mind, CBD is seen to act on a physiological level, and its medicinal benefits are only beginning to be discovered. But it is well known to aid in treating some serious medical conditions including inhibiting tumour growth, reducing or preventing inflammation and nausea, diabetes, PTSD, schizophrenia, rheumatoid arthritis, epilepsy, cardiovascular disease, antipsychotic, anti-anxiety and even as a painkiller against muscle spasms or neuropathic pain.


So how does this all work for us? Well the endocannabinoid system essentially regulates all of the basic functions and patterns our body has to deal with including:

  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • Appetite
  • Metabolism
  • Pain
  • Memory
  • Immune Function
  • Inflammation
  • Neuroprotection and development
  • Digestion
  • Reproduction

Cannabinoid receptors are found all over the body, an abundance of CB1 receptors are found in the central nervous system while CB2 receptors are more commonly found on immune cells, in the gastrointestinal tract, and the peripheral nervous system. This should give you an idea of the huge variety of functions the endocannabinoid system provides for us.

Studies have shown higher levels of endocannabinoids in patients with disorders such as Parkinson's, arthritis and chronic pain. Similarly, high levels of cannabinoid receptors are found in tumour cells. This has given rise to the theory that the endocannabinoid system is nature's way of regulating homoeostasis: the ability to maintain stable internal equilibrium by adjusting physiological processes.
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The endocannabinoid system is rapidly becoming a great point of interest for scientists, medical professionals and researchers alike. It is a complex system which plays many vital roles in the human body.

But the use of medicinal cannabis is still the most common way of targeting the endocannabinoid system medicinally. The exogenous cannabinoids, THC and CBD are known to produce a huge variety of therapeutic effects by interacting with the endocannabinoid system and are becoming a very commonly prescribed medicine across the world.

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External Resources:
  1. The endocannabinoid system and its therapeutic exploitation. - PubMed - NCBI https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
This content is for educational purposes only. The information provided is derived from research gathered from external sources.

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