The Endocannabinoid System: What you need to know

The Endocannabinoid System: What you need to know

CBD exerts its effects by interacting with the Endocannabinoid System – but what is the Endocannabinoid System and how does it work? Here, we break down everything you need to know to help you understand the science behind CBD.

Cannabidiol – otherwise known as CBD – is a cannabinoid molecule found in cannabis. However, CBD is just one of over 400 cannabinoids that have so far been identified in the plant including cannabinoids such as THC, CBG, and CBN. Cannabinoids are named as such as they are molecules that interact with a system within the body called the Endocannabinoid System.

It is believed that the Endocannabinoid System evolved in mammals around 600 million years ago. Aside from cannabis, the system interacts with cannabinoid-type molecules from several different plants such as black pepper, rosemary and echinacea, for example. It also interacts with cannabinoids produced inside the body – known as endocannabinoids.

Found throughout the central nervous system, immune system, reproductive system and other areas of the body, the Endocannabinoid System helps to regulate different processes in the body – like sleep, appetite and reproduction.

So, let’s find out more about this ancient system

The Endocannabinoid System

Much like the nervous system, endocrine system or immune system, the Endocannabinoid System is another system found in throughout the human body – although much lesser known. In fact, the system was only discovered in 1988 thanks to the earlier discovery of THC in cannabis in 1964, and has yet to appear on medical curriculums.

The Endocannabinoid System is a cell-signalling system that has two receptors: the CB1 receptor which is mainly found in the brain and central nervous system, and the CB2 receptor which is predominantly found throughout the immune system and the peripheral central nervous system.

These receptors interact with cannabinoids and endocannabinoids, and it is this interaction that causes the different effects of cannabinoids.

Two of the main endocannabinoids that are produced in the body are anandamide (AEA) and arachidonolglycerol (2-AG) which work to indirectly regulate the Endocannabinoid System through partial activation of the CB1 and CB2 receptors.

Research has suggested so far that the Endocannabinoid System is involved in endocrine regulation and energy balance, as well as neuroprotection, neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity, memory processing, and the modulation of processes such as pain and inflammation responses, fertility, sleep, and appetite.

Cannabis cannabinoids and the Endocannabinoid System

Now we know the basics of the Endocannabinoid system itself – how do cannabis cannabinoids interact with the system to exert their effects?

Our understanding of cannabinoids is still in is very early days, but so far research shows that the CB1 receptor – which is primarily involved with the regulation of mood, appetite, memory, and sleep – mediates the psychoactive effects of cannabinoids, and the CB2 receptor – which is primarily involved in the regulation of pain and inflammation – mediates the anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects.

Different cannabinoids will have different effects on the body depending on their affinity for each receptor.

For example, THC has been found to have an affinity for the CB1 receptor, leading to its psychoactive effects, whereas CBD indirectly modulates the ability of CB1 and CB2 to bind to other cannabinoids. This is why THC causes a person to feel “high” and CBD doesn’t.

This is also why, for example, THC causes “the munchies”, as it intereacts with the CB1 receptor which involved in the regulation of appetite.

Endocannabinoid Deficiency and the future of Endocannabinoid Therapy

As highlighted, the Endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in maintaining the normal functioning of the human body.

As our understanding of the system has grown, some research has pointed to a deficiency in the Endocannabinoid System being a cause of certain illnesses or diseases.

For example, research has pointed to endocannabinoid deficiencies playing a role in conditions such as migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and even motion sickness.

A paper by renowned researcher Dr Ethan Russo put forward this idea, coining the term ‘Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency’, whereby the system’s function is decreased. For example, research has found that people with migraines have depressed AEA levels in their cerebral spinal fluid.

Russo suggests that cannabinoid therapies could be beneficial treatments for conditions that may be associated with CED, but that further research and clinical trials will be needed to confirm the hypothesis.


To conclude, the Endocannabinoid System is a vital bodily network that regulates processes such as sleep, appetite, and responses to inflammation.

This relatively recent discovery of the Endocannabinoid System has opened an exciting new frontier in scientific research and in our understanding of human health.

As research progresses and we begin to understand more about its functions, this may pave the way to new and innovative therapies for many difficult to treat medical conditions.

The multiple cannabinoids found in cannabis will likely play a huge role in these therapies, as we are now beginning to learn more about how cannabinoids such as CBD and THC work closely with this complex system to regulate the intricate processes of the human body.

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