What is the endocannabinoid system?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Cannabis brands often promote their products by citing the benefits that come from active chemical compounds in the Cannabis plant.

Particularly, how these compounds interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS).  But, what is the endocannabinoid system anyway? 

The ECS regulates key aspects of human biology through a network of receptors that monitor and maintain homeostasis throughout our bodies. 

When using cannabis, it’s important to understand this system because the different chemical compounds found within the cannabis plant, like CBD and THC,  interact differently when introduced to the ECS, and induce different health benefits and effects.

So, what exactly is this biological process, and how does it work? 

Explaining the endocannabinoid system

Since its discovery, the ECS has been recognized as a crucial regulatory function for the brain, endocrine and immune tissues, while also playing a role in the secretion of hormones linked to stress responses and reproductive functioning.

According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “This system also controls energy homeostasis and mainly influences the function of the food intake centers of the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract activity.” 

Essentially, this jargon means that the ECS influences sleep, mood, appetite, memory, reproduction and fertility processes within the body.  

But how can one system modulate so many important bodily reactions and functions? The ECS is composed of a core network of receptors, endocannabinoids and enzymes that listen, inform and react to the needs and changes of the body. 


“Endogenous” means naturally occurring inside of the body, and “cannabinoid” stems from the word cannabis. So endogenous cannabinoid, or endocannabinoid for short, means cannabis-like substances that are naturally produced within the body. 

There are two key endocannabinoids that work within the body’s ECS. Anandamide (AEA) and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) bond with cannabinoid receptors to help maintain normal and healthy bodily functions through the homeostasis process. 


There are two main receptors that work within the ECS. CB1 receptors can be found within the central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are found in the peripheral nervous system. They sit on the surface of cells and transmit information from bodily reactions to the inside of the cell to implement necessary cellular responses.

When these receptors bind with endocannabinoids, the ECS takes action. Although the action depends on the receptor. For instance, CB1 receptors are responsible for pain relief, and CB2 receptors respond to the needs and relief of the immune system. 

These receptors are also responsible for the high you feel when you ingest THC. 


ECS enzymes break down endocannabinoids once they regulate and react to the body’s response to another stimulus. 

There are two different enzymes for the two different types of endocannabinoids. The fatty acid amide hydrolase breaks down AEA, while monoacylglycerol acid lipase breaks down 2-AG. 

Enzymes are essential in making sure that endocannabinoids are activated only when they are needed, which includes making sure they aren’t utilized for longer than necessary, or that could disrupt homeostasis.

Why do we have cannabinoid receptors?

Although research is still being done on the ECS, there are positive correlations to these functions of the body when endocannabinoids or THC and CBD bind with cannabinoid receptors: 

  • Appetite 
  • Bone development
  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammation 
  • Learning and memory
  • Liver
  • Metabolism
  • Motor control
  • Muscle formation
  • Skin and nerves
  • Sleep
  • Stress

Currently, scientists and doctors find that homeostasis is the primary role of the endocannabinoid system, which each of the above functions benefit from when the body is healthy. 

THC and the endocannabinoid system

THC is one of the cannabinoids found in the Cannabis plant. It is the chemical compound responsible for the high you feel when you consume marijuana. 

When a THC-potent substance is consumed it interacts with the endocannabinoid system and binds with cannabinoid receptors. THC binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors.

How does this affect the body? Although the benefits of THC on the body are still being researched, there is evidence to suggest that when THC chemical compounds bind with cannabinoid receptors the body can experience a reduction in chronic pain, stimulation in appetite and other various health and wellness benefits.  

CBD and the endocannabinoid system

Aside from THC, CBD is another main cannabinoid found in cannabis. The difference between the two chemical compounds is that when CBD is introduced to the endocannabinoid system it does not induce any psychoactive effects and it doesn’t engage cannabinoid receptors in the same way. 

According to Medical News Today, “CBD indirectly acts on the CB2 receptors, which may help with widespread pain relief by reducing inflammation.” CBD products are also linked to positive effects on digestion, cancer and mental health conditions, like anxiety. CBD oil can also be an effective pain management method for chronic illnesses and neuropathic issues too. 

How was the endocannabinoid system discovered?

Israeli scientist, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, identified the THC cannabinoid in 1964, which ignited other research into cannabis and its effects on the human body. Mechoulam’s research led to Allyn Howlett and William Devane’s discovery in 1988. The two scientists found the first cannabinoid receptor in the brain of a rat, which then led them to the process of mapping the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Their efforts found that there were more of these receptors than any other neurotransmitter receptor in the brain, and thus they discovered the endocannabinoid system. 

Can you really have an endocannabinoid deficiency?

Since the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, some scientists have theorized the possibility of a clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). If true, this theory could mean that if you have low endocannabinoid levels in your body then you could be more susceptible to certain conditions, like migraines, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome. 

These conditions do not have a clear cause or treatment. Although research still needs to be done, the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health finds that: “Migraine, fibromyalgia, IBS and related conditions display common clinical, biochemical and pathophysiological patterns that suggest an underlying clinical endocannabinoid deficiency that may be suitably treated with cannabinoid medicines.”

To sum it up

The ECS is crucial in stabilizing your body’s homeostatic response, but these findings are only the beginning in understanding this complicated function of the body. As experts continue to research a better understanding of the ECS and as the cannabis industry continues to develop into an effective health and wellness option, this could lead to unprecedented discoveries in managing several unmanageable conditions.  

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