Guide to the Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex cell-signaling system identified in the early 1990s by researchers exploring THC, a well-known cannabinoid known for its psychoactive effects. Cannabinoids are compounds found in the cannabis plant.

Researchers are still trying to fully understand the ECS. So far, we know it plays a vital role in regulating a range of functions and processes, including:

  • sleep
  • mood
  • appetite
  • memory
  • reproduction and fertility

Did you know –  The ECS is active in our bodies even without the consumption of cannabis?  

Did you know – Endocannabinoids are found in breast milk and is believed to be important to infant brain development?

How does it work?

The ECS involves three core components: Endocannabinoids, Receptors, and Enzymes.


Endocannabinoids, also called endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules made by our body. They’re similar to plant cannabinoids (CBD, THC, etc), but are produced internally in our bodies.  Experts have identified two key endocannabinoids so far:

  • anandamide (AEA)
  • 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)


Endocannabinoids help keeps our internal functions running smoothly and are  produced as they are needed.  

Endocannabinoid receptors

These receptors are found throughout our body – internally and throughout our skin. Endocannabinoids bind to them in order to signal that the ECS needs to take action.  There are two main endocannabinoid receptors:

  • CB1 receptors, which are mostly found in the central nervous system
  • CB2 receptors, which are mostly found in the skin and our peripheral nervous system, especially immune cells


Our naturally produced endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor. The effects that result depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to.  For example, endocannabinoids might target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to relieve pain. Others might bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body’s experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders.


Enzymes are responsible for breaking down our endocannabinoids once they have carried out their function.  

There are two main enzymes responsible for this:

  • fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down AEA
  • monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which typically breaks down 2-AG

What are the ECS functions?

The ECS is complicated, and experts haven’t yet determined exactly how it works or all of its potential functions.  Research shows a link between the ECS to the following bodily processes: 

  • appetite and digestion
  • metabolism
  • chronic pain
  • inflammation and other immune system responses
  • mood
  • learning and memory
  • motor control
  • sleep
  • cardiovascular system function
  • muscle formation
  • bone remodeling and growth
  • liver function
  • reproductive system function
  • stress
  • skin and nerve function


These processes all contribute to homeostasis, which refers to the balancing and stabilization of our internal systems. For example, if an outside force, such as pain from an injury or a fever, throws our body’s homeostasis out of balance, our ECS is activated to help our body return to its ideal operation.  Today, experts believe that maintaining homeostasis if the primary role of the ECS.

How does CBD interact with the ECS?

A major cannabinoid found in cannabis is cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike THC, CBD produces no “euphoria” and typically is safe in large doses without serious side effects.

Experts aren’t completely sure how CBD interacts with the ECS, but they do know that it doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors the way THC does.  Instead, many believe it works by actually preventing our natural endocannabinoids from being broken down in our bodies, increasing their effectiveness.  Others believe that CBD binds to a receptor that hasn’t been discovered yet.

While we wait for more human studies to further our understanding of CBD and its effectiveness,  initial research suggests that CBD can help with pain, nausea, and other symptoms associated with multiple conditions.

How does THC interact with the ECS?

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is another prominent cannabinoid found in cannabis. It’s the compound that gets you “high.”  Once in our body, THC interacts with our ECS by binding to receptors, just like endocannabinoids.  

THC has the unique ability to bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, allowing it to have a range of effects on our body and mind, some more desirable than others. For example, THC may help to reduce pain and stimulate appetite. But it can also cause paranoia and anxiety in some cases.  Experts are currently looking into ways to produce synthetic THC cannabinoids that interact with the ECS is only beneficial ways.

What about endocannabinoid deficiency?

Some experts believe in a theory known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). This theory suggests that low endocannabinoid levels in your body or ECS dysfunction can contribute to the development of certain conditions.

2016 article  reviewing over 10 years of research on the subject suggests the theory could explain why some people develop a migrainefibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome.

None of these conditions have a clear underlying cause. They’re also often resistant to treatment and sometimes occur alongside each other.  If CECD does play any kind of role in these conditions, targeting the ECS or endocannabinoid production could be the missing key to treatment, but more research is needed.

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