Understanding the Endocannabinoid System

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If you’ve been reading up on CBD oil benefits and how the compound positively affects the body, then you’ve probably come across some mention of the endocannabinoid system.


Endocannabinoid system - Dr. Axe

Do we really have an endocannabinoid system? Yes! It was only discovered about 25 years ago, when scientists were analyzing the potential benefits of THC, the main psychoactive and intoxicating compound in cannabis. Since then, they’ve learned that our bodies are made up of endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors that are present throughout the body.

Maybe you’ve been skeptical about the health benefits of cannabis oil and CBD oil, especially because they seem to positively affect such a range of areas in the body. But these benefits are generally believed to be due to their influence on the endocannabinoid system. We continue to learn about this extraordinary body system, but so far we know that’s a really, really big deal.

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a biochemical communication system in the body that plays an important role in many physiological systems that are involved in maintaining our health. The term “endocannabinoid” can be broken down to mean cannabinoids made naturally from within the body. Although the substances made within the body aren’t from cannabis, they react with internal receptors similarly to cannabis compounds. That’s why they’ve been given the name “endogenous cannabinoids” or endocannabinoids.

Overall, scientists found that we have cannabinoid receptors that interact with the endogenous cannabinoids made within the body. The first discovered endocannabinoids were anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol, which have precursors that are found in our lipid membranes.

But they also found that exogenous cannabinoids, including compounds found in cannabis and other plants, also affect our cannabinoid receptors. This is exactly why using CBD (cannabidiol) and even very small amounts of THC has such a positive influence on many body functions. These cannabis compounds actually mimic the effects of chemical messengers found within the human body.

Related: 10 Herbs and Superfoods with Cannabinoids Similar to Cannabis

Endocannabinoid Function

The endocannabinoid system can become underactive or overactive, which causes the body to malfunction and come out of a homeostatic state. This is called “endocannabinoid system dysfunction,” and it can lead to many common issues.

Just like any other body system, endocannabinoid system dysfunction can be caused by lifestyle factors, dietary changes and other issues. While more research needs to be conducted, preliminary research indicates that the endocannabinoid system plays a role in overall health.

Beneficial Role of the Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system is referred to as a “biochemical communication system” because it includes many components that work together to keep the body in homeostasis.

The endocannabinoid system is made up of three major components:

  • cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2)
  • endocannabinoids that occur naturally inside the body
  • enzymes that allow for the synthesis and degradation of endocannabinoids

In addition to the endogenous cannabinoids that are made inside the body, exogenous cannabinoids may work in a similar manner. Two exogenous cannabinoids that are believed to influence receptors in the ECS are CBD and THC.


Overall, the endocannabinoid system plays a role in maintaining homeostasis. It ensures that our bodies have a stable and well-functioning internal environment.

You see, our bodies naturally work to keep our internal environment in balance, even when our environment may be out of balance. When things aren’t balanced — maybe it’s a stressful state of being or something else, the body works to keep everything running smoothly.

Scientists are beginning to learn that when the body begins to lose balance, it activates the endocannabinoid system to help balance it. It does this with cannabinoid receptors that are found throughout the body. From the brain to the immune and digestive systems, these receptors help keep things in check.

Receptors and Enzymes

The ECS is made up of receptors that respond to endogenous and exogenous cannabinoids. These receptors are found throughout the body and researchers have found that they respond to environmental stimuli. This is how cannabis compounds, including CBD and THC, act as chemical messengers that produce effects within our cells.

So far, scientists have discovered what’re called “G-protein-coupled receptors” — CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are found in the brain and central nervous system. They are particularly abundant in the cortex, basal ganglia, hippocampus and cerebellum.

CB2 receptors are found in our immune cells. A very interesting feature of CB2 receptors is that they are extremely respondent to stimuli.

Some studies also indicate that CB2 receptors are also present in neural cells and influence sensory neurons and nerve fibers.

We also have enzymes that work to break down endocannabinoids. The fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) enzyme breaks down anandamide (which is know as the “bliss molecule”) quickly. So even though anandamide binds to CB1 receptors and has calming effects, when FAAH does its job, the feeling doesn’t last for long. But CBD can help support those overall calming benefits.

Support for the Following Areas

Research shows that endocannabinoids, and exogenous cannabinoids, play a role in a number of areas in the body. Because CB1 and CB2 receptors are found throughout the body, cannabinoids that interact with these receptors can impact many areas of the body and its functions, including the following:

  • emotions
  • behavior
  • motor control (movement)
  • memory
  • sleep
  • hormones
  • the cardiovascular system
  • the digestive system
  • the immune system
  • the reproductive system
  • body temperature

Final Thoughts About Endocannabinoids

  • The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a biochemical communication system in the body that plays an important role in many systems in the body.
  • The ECS is made up of cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2), endocannabinoids that occur naturally inside the body, and enzymes that naturally function to allow for the synthesis and degradation of endocannabinoids.
  • Scientists have also learned that exogenous cannabinoids, like CBD and THC, also interact with cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. This is generally believed to be what gives cannabis compounds their “claim to fame.” They are able to influence receptors in the brain, digestive system, immune system and other major organs in the body.

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