An Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System

Many of us consume cannabidiol (CBD) to ease our symptoms. At some point in our wellness journey, we may come to wonder exactly how CBD works. It is important to understand how a supplement is affecting our biology. 

CBD works as a therapeutic agent because we have a biological system to interact with it. It is called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). More than just interacting with cannabis, the endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in our wellbeing. What this means for CBD consumers is of great importance. 

Endocannabinoid System Discovery

Cannabis has been used as medicine for centuries, but it was the discovery of the endocannabinoid system that provided a new understanding of the underlying mechanisms of cannabis-derived compounds. 


In the past, cannabis research held the interest of few. The identification of THC, cannabis’s primary psychoactive compound, was the first breakthrough. THC is one of 85+ cannabinoids present in the cannabis plant. These compounds are called phytocannabinoids (phyto- meaning plant), although they are often referred to as just cannabinoids. Subsequent research led to the identification of more cannabinoids, including cannabivarol (CBV) and cannabidiol (CBD).

There are still cannabinoids being discovered today. 

Cannabinoid Receptors

Soon after the identification of cannabinoids, the existence of receptors specific to cannabinoids was discovered. Cannabinoid receptors observe conditions outside the cell and transmit information about changing conditions. The cell will then respond appropriately. 

Compounds such as cannabinoids require a binding site in order to influence the body. Think of the receptors as a lock and compounds as the key. Compounds such as cannabinoids bind to the receptors and cause a response. The nature of the response is dependent upon the type of compound. Each cannabinoid causes a different response from the body. 

The first cannabinoid receptor was labeled CB1. CB1 receptors are abundant in the brain but can also be found in tissues and cells outside the brain. The second cannabinoid receptor was named CB2 and is found in the immune system and some organs. 


The identification of THC also led researchers to discover cannabinoids produced by the body. These compounds are called endocannabinoids (endo- meaning within). An endocannabinoid we are likely familiar with is anandamide, which is responsible for causing what is known as a “runner’s high”. Anandamide and 2-AG are the two major endocannabinoids. The body creates endocannabinoids as needed rather than storing them for future use like other biological molecules. 

Like cannabinoids, endocannabinoids interact with the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Researchers found that endocannabinoids created a wider system of intercellular communication. With the discovery of endocannabinoids, researchers uncovered the greater endocannabinoid system. 

Metabolic Enzymes

The third and final piece of the endocannabinoid system is metabolic enzymes that destroy the endocannabinoids once they are used. Two of note are FAAH, which breaks down anandamide, and MAGL, which breaks down 2-AG. These metabolic enzymes make sure the endocannabinoids are used only for as long as they are needed. 

The endocannabinoid system is composed of cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2), endocannabinoids such as anandamide and 2-AG, and their respective enzymes which regulate the breakdown of the endocannabinoids. So, how does the endocannabinoid system work in the body? As we’ve discovered, cannabinoid receptors are located throughout the body, which means the endocannabinoid system has a hand in many biological functions. The system has one simple but important goal: homeostasis. 

Role of the Endocannabinoid System

The role of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain homeostasis, or balance, of various biological functions. The endocannabinoid system is present in nearly all major systems of the body and therefore plays a role in the balance of many functions. Currently, the endocannabinoid system is being researched for its role in energy metabolism, pain and inflammation, central nervous system disorders, cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, cancer, gastrointestinal and liver disorders, and musculoskeletal disorders, to name a few. 

The endocannabinoid system employs endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors to maintain homeostasis. When an imbalance is identified, the body creates endocannabinoids to interact with the cannabinoid receptors. The cells respond to the chemical message and work to bring the physiological process back to homeostasis. 

Sometimes, however, there are not enough endocannabinoids created for the endocannabinoid system to work adequately. This can lead to health problems and disease. In such instances, supplementing a diet with cannabinoids such as CBD may support the endocannabinoid system. 

ECS and Phytocannabinoids

Plant-derived cannabinoids have medicinal effects largely because we have an endocannabinoid system. THC, for example, binds directly to the CB1 receptor to create a high. Each cannabinoid interacts with the system a bit differently. Additionally, cannabinoids may activate cannabinoid receptors, but they are also likely to interact with other receptors in the brain, therefore producing unique effects. 

Let’s take CBD, for example. Rather than binding directly to the receptors, CBD indirectly affects the signaling of the CB1 and CB2 receptors. It is known as an antagonist because it does not allow other compounds to bind to the receptors. This partially explains how CBD reduces the intoxicating effect of THC, as it inhibits THC from binding to cannabinoid receptors. Additionally, CBD inhibits the FAAH enzyme from breaking down anandamide, which allows for a greater prevalence of the endocannabinoid in the body. 

Further, CBD interacts with non-cannabinoid receptors such as opioid receptors, which assists in pain regulation, dopamine receptors, which regulate behavior, and serotonin receptors. The unique properties of CBD are being studied as a treatment for numerous issues such as pain and inflammation, anxiety, epilepsy, and addiction. 


A decade of research has linked the endocannabinoid system to various physiological functions and controlling the activity of the endocannabinoid system could be used as a therapeutic treatment for many disorders. By understanding the principle of homeostasis within the endocannabinoid system, we begin to see how plant-derived cannabinoids can be of benefit to our wellness. 

Do you have any additional questions regarding the endocannabinoid system? Leave a comment below! 

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