The Endocannabinoid System

Did you know your body has an endocannabinoid system?

If you haven’t heard of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), you are probably not alone. This might have something to do with the way this system came to the forefront back in the 1990s. Scientists were trying to understand how THC, the psychoactive substance in the cannabis plant, elicits its effect on the body and discovered a complex network of receptors.

Unless you work in the field of research or the medical marijuana industry, it’s unlikely you have had much exposure to the endocannabinoid system.

What is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

The Endocannabinoid system is a vital communication system between the brain, nervous system and the human body, drawing its name from the marijuana plant Cannabis sativa. This signalling system is responsible for regulating our vital physiological functions from a person’s pain, mood, appetite, and cellular life and death cycles.1

Research has shown the human body has two types of endocannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2 respectively. These receptors are found throughout the body exerting different action depending upon their location, the most important being in the brain and immune system.2
The cannabinoids a person consumes from the Cannabis plant can bind to these receptors, and facilitate the endocannabinoid system in its efforts to regulate properly and achieve homeostasis.2

Endocannabinoid receptors

CB1 receptors are found throughout the body, but are most present in the brain and spinal cord. They are concentrated in brain regions associated with the behaviors they influence. Anandamide, also classed as a neurotransmitter, is the endocannabinoid that has the most receptors in the brain.3 Cannabidiol (CBD) found abundantly in hemp does not bind directly to cannabinoid receptors. Instead, CBD has been shown to stimulate vanilloid pain receptors (VR1), inhibits uptake of anandamide, and weakly inhibits its breakdown.These new findings have important implications in elucidating the pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory effects of CBD.3

CB2 receptors tend to be found in the peripheral nervous system. They are especially concentrated in immune cells.4 When these receptors are activated, they work to reduce inflammation which is believed to play a role in many diseases and conditions. In contrast to type 1 receptors, cannabidiol has a stronger affinity at the cannabinoid type 2 receptors (CB2) that are mostly located in the periphery, in lymphoid tissues.4

How the endocannabinoid system works

The endocannabinoid system communicates in a manner unlike neurotransmitters. Typically brain cells (neurons) will send chemical messages (neurotransmitters) which travel across a synapse and attach to specific receptors near a neuron.5 The EC communicates in a different way as it works backward. When a postsynaptic neuron is activated, cannabinoids (made from fat cells) are released from the cell and travel backwards where they attach to the cannabinoid receptors. This indicates cannabinoids act like a “dimmer switch” limiting the amount of neurotransmitter that gets released, affecting how messages are sent, received and processed by the cell.5

When the ECS is performing optimally endocannabinoids are naturally produced. Some research suggests a deficiency in the ECS is observed in conditions associated with pain, fibromyalgia, migraine and irritable bowel syndrome.6 Therefore supplementing what the body is missing with compounds from the Cannabis plant could better regulate the ECS and encourage healing.

The greatest impact on the endocannabinoid system is exerted by cannabinoids from plants, like CBD, THC or other compounds. Further studies are needed, particularly with CBD compounds to elucidate therapeutic properties being suitable for medical applications.




  1. The diverse CB1 and CB2 receptor pharmacology of three plant cannabinoids: delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol and delta9-tetrahydrocannabivarin, Pertwee RG, 2008, Br J Pharmacol. 2008;153(2):199-215.
  2. Endocannabinoid Binding to the Cannabinoid Receptors: What Is Known and What Remains Unknown, Reggio PH, 2010, Curr Med Chem. 2010; 17(14): 1468–1486.
  3. Therapeutic Potential of Cannabinoids in Psychosis, Leweke FM, Mueller JK, Lange B, Rohleder C, 2015, Biol Psychiatry. 2016 Apr 1;79(7):604-12. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.11.018.
  4. Molecular targets for cannabidiol and its synthetic analogues: effect on vanilloid VR1 receptors and on the cellular uptake and enzymatic hydrolysis of anandamide, Tiziana Bisogno, Lumír Hanuš, Luciano De Petrocellis, Susanna Tchilibon, Datta E Ponde, Ines Brandi, Aniello Schiano Moriello, John B Davis, Raphael Mechoulam, and Vincenzo Di Marzo, 2001, Br J Pharmacol. 2001 Oct; 134(4): 845–852.doi: 10.1038/sj.bjp.0704327,PMCID: PMC1573017
  5. The Science of the Endocannabinoid System: How THC Affects the Brain and the Body, 2011,
  6. Role of the Cannabinoid System in Pain Control and Therapeutic Implications for the Management of Acute and Chronic Pain Episodes, J Manzanares, MD Julian, Carrascosa, 2006, Curr Neuropharmacol. 2006 Jul; 4(3): 239–257.
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