What is the Endocannabinoid System?

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

Table of Contents

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a vital role in many core functions of the human body. But what is the endocannabinoid system, what does it do, and why is it so important when discussing cannabis? 

If you're curious about this or just how products like Delta-9, Delta-8, and CBD work, you've come to the right place. This blog post will cover everything you want and more about the endocannabinoid system.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

In short, the endocannabinoid system is a network of chemical messengers and receptors located throughout the brain and the rest of the body. According to research published in the National Library of Medicine, the endocannabinoid system is, "...is one of the most important physiologic systems involved in establishing and maintaining human health."

The main job of the endocannabinoid system is maintaining homeostasis (stable internal conditions), helping regulate:
  • Memory
  • Learning
  • Mood
  • Appetite
  • Sleep
  • Inflammatory responses
  • Reward centers
  • Pain centers
  • Blood sugar
  • Immune functions
If you're not as familiar with the endocannabinoid as you are with the cardiovascular, digestive, or nervous system per se, don't fret. The endocannabinoid system is relatively unknown to most people, as scientists discovered it in 1988.

One common misconception about the endocannabinoid system is that it's some evolutionary adaptation for humans to consume cannabis. Although it's easy to see why one might think this, the truth is that many vertebrates and invertebrates have an endocannabinoid system, including:
  • Mammals 
  • Reptiles
  • Fish
  • Birds
  • Sea urchins
  • Mussels
  • Leeches
  • Nematodes
The system was named after cannabis because the discovery of the ECS came about while researchers were determining the mechanisms for the effects of cannabis. So basically, it's just a part of our body that we named after the cannabis plant. 

About Endocannabinoids

neurotransmitter release mechanisms. Neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse.

The word "endocannabinoid" (short for endogenous cannabinoids) is a split between "endo," which means "from within," and "cannabinoid," natural compounds that occur within cannabis plants.

So, endocannabinoids are the compounds our bodies produce to act as chemical messengers throughout the ECS.

The two most well-known endocannabinoids are:
  1. Anadadamide (AEA)
  2. 2-arachidonolgycleral (2-AG)
Anadadamide gets its name from the Sanskrit word "ananda," which roughly translates to "internal bliss." This endocannabinoid primarily binds to the CB1 receptors, the same receptors that THC (such as Delta-8 and Delta-9) bind to. When this endocannabinoid binds to these receptors, it can have a calming effect. 

On the other hand, 2-AG is the most prevalent endocannabinoid in the brain. Like anandamide, this endocannabinoid can interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors but with higher efficacy

Endocannabinoids can serve a wide array of functions. For instance, many thought that the "runner's high" experienced by people engaged in physical activity came from endorphins. 

However, contemporary research shows that the true source of this feeling is the release of endocannabinoids. Plus, some immune cells can produce endocannabinoids to bind onto CB2 receptors to regulate inflammation and other immune responses. There are endocannabinoids besides AEA and 2-AG, such as fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), though AEA and 2-AG are the most well-known. 

So what are these CB1 and CB2 receptors? That's what we're going to cover in the next section. 

About ECS Receptors

Now that we've covered endocannabinoids, the chemical messengers of the ECS, it's time to move on to the second half of the ECS—cannabinoid receptors. There are two primary cannabinoid receptors found throughout the human body, and they're known as CB1 Receptors and CB2 receptors. 

CB1 Receptors

Human brain stimulation or activity with neuron close-up 3D rendering illustration. Neurology, cognition, neuronal network, psychology, neuroscience scientific

Did you know that CB1 receptors are the most prevalent receptors found in the brain? These receptors act as a "control center" for turning the activity up or down on most neurotransmitters. CB1 receptors in the central nervous system are responsible for functions such as temperature regulation, appetite, and alertness. 

CB2 Receptors

These receptors are more involved with the body's immune system. Unlike CB1 receptors, when CB2 receptors are activated, they do not promote any changes in mood or feeling. For example, a 2009 study revealed how CB2 receptors in the gastrointestinal tract help manage inflammation

It's interesting to note how these two receptors play vastly different (yet important) roles within the human body although they're part of the same system. Understanding these receptors is key to understanding how cannabis works. 

Why Can Cannabis Interact with the ECS?

A close up of the marijuana farm industry. Beautiful macro and micro shots. Green house, outdoor, indoor plants. Harvesting cannabis, planting weed and more.

At this point, you can probably piece together the reason why cannabis can interact with the ECS. The ECS is a network of chemical messengers that bind and interact with two different types of receptors (CB1 and CB2). The reason why cannabis can interact with the ECS is because its compounds, cannabinoids, can also bind to or modulate the activity of cannabinoid receptors

For instance, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can bind to CB1 receptors because it has some molecular resemblance to anandamide (AEA). Essentially, your cannabinoid receptors are like a lock that works with one key, but because THC is very similar to the "key" that your body uses, it also works on the same receptor. 

Conversely, CBD has a partial affinity for binding with CB2 receptors and an even lower affinity for CB1 receptors. Interestingly enough, CBD can interact with other types of receptors in the human body outside of the ECS. For example, researchers have found that CBD interacts with the serotonin (5-HT)1A receptor

Endocannabinoids vs. Phytocannabinoids

When doing your own research on the endocannabinoid system and cannabis, you may come across the term "phytocannabinoid." 

“Phytocannabinoid” simply refers to a cannabinoid that is found in cannabis plants as opposed to an endocannabinoid, which, as stated above, is produced in the bodies of mammals and other non-plant organisms. 

Most people will just say “cannabinoid” instead of “phytocannabinoid,” but researchers use more specific terminology to distinguish between the two types of compounds.

Effects of Cannabis on the ECS

using cannabis oil tincture

The effects (or even "side effects") that cannabis compounds have on the ECS are multi-faceted and can vary depending on a variety of factors, including the unique makeup of someone's endocannabinoid system, the types of cannabinoids consumed, and method of consumption.
For instance, there are many anecdotes about people who have consumed a 5mg gummy and felt overwhelmed, while others experience moderate effects or barely feel it at all. 

Then, there can be a variation of effects based on the medium. For example, as an edible, the effects of THC will be more acute and longer lasting, whereas inhalation will result in milder effects with a shorter duration. 

The types of cannabinoids consumed will also determine the overall effect on the ECS. For instance, CBD is viewed by many as having "passive effects," meaning it's not what you feel with CBD, but rather, what you don't feel with CBD. 

Variations of THC will also determine how cannabis affects the ECS.  Let's say we used 1mg Delta-9 THC as our baseline since that is the most prevalent form of the cannabinoid. Compared to Delta-9, THC-P will have a binding affinity to cannabinoid receptors with up to 33 times more activity (i.e., more potency). At the same time, Delta-8, on a milligram-to-milligram basis, will have a weaker binding affinity than Delta-9. 

In short, the ECS plays a role in many functions, such as mood, memory, learning, appetite, and temperature. When you consume cannabis, you are consuming plant compounds that directly affect this system. So, as an enthusiast, you can expect to experience effects pertaining to these functions, but remember that everyone's experience is a bit different. 

Final Thoughts

That pretty much sums up the endocannabinoid system. The ECS is a system comprising endocannabinoids such as anandamide and 2-AG that act as chemical messengers linking to CB1 and CB2 receptors. Cannabis delivers its effects because cannabinoids can also bind or interact with these receptors. How cannabis interacts with this system can vary based on someone's individual ECS, the cannabinoids they consume, and how a person consumes cannabinoids. 

Until next time, happy exploring and Mind Your Mind.

FDA Disclaimer: The statements made regarding these products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The efficacy of these products has not been confirmed by FDA-approved research. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. All information presented here is not meant as a substitute for or alternative to information from health care practitioners. Please consult your healthcare professional about potential interactions or other possible complications before using any product. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires this notice.

Related Posts

The True Source of Runner’s High

January 1, 2024

The True Source of Runner’s High
Understanding CBN: The Next Chapter in Cannabinoid Research

February 14, 2024

Understanding CBN: The Next Chapter in Cannabinoid Research


All Education
Previous post Back to blog Next post