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What is the endocannabinoid system? How does it work?

When talking about cannabis and its effects on the human body, you need to know about the endocannabinoid system:

This system of chemical “locks” and “keys” causes the many effects and side-effects of cannabis…

It’s also responsible for the beneficial medical properties which so many cannabinoids (prominently THC and CBD) are currently being studied for.

So, what is the endocannabinoid system? And how does it work?

Let’s find out:

What are cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are a type of chemical compound. There are several different types, including:

  • Endocannabinoids – these are manufactured naturally in the bodies of all kinds of animals, including humans.
  • Phytocannabinoids – there are currently said to be 113 phytocannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Many of these – notably tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) – are being tested to determine the extent of their beneficial medical properties.
  • Synthetic cannabinoids – it is possible to create cannabinoids in a lab.

All of these different types of cannabinoids can bind to special receptors in the human body. These receptors are part of what is called the endocannabinoid (endogenous cannabinoid) system.

What is the Endogenous Cannabinoid System?

Every animal has an endogenous cannabinoid system, a.k.a. “endocannabinoid” system.

The system regulates a large number of different body functions. Technically speaking, it controls how some lipids (a type of biological molecule which includes things like fats and fat-soluble vitamins) act – as well as containing certain binding sites which are receptive to certain cannabinoids.

Those binding sites can be found in the following places in the brains of most animals, including humans:

  • Hippocampus – (responsible for) memory and learning.
  • Cerebral cortex – decision-making and emotional control.
  • Cerebellum – motor control and coordination.
  • Putamen – movement and learning.
  • Hypothalamus – appetite and internal body temperature.
  • Amygdala – emotions.

They can also be found in many other parts of the body, including various organs, tissues and glands.

If you look at this list, you can already see the links between where ECS receptors are located, the systems within your body they control or have an effect on and the ways which cannabis is known to affect many people.

Don’t forget though that your body also produces its own cannabinoids.

How does the endocannabinoid system work?

You can think of the endocannabinoid system as a series of “locks” in the human body for which cannabinoids are the “keys”.

(You’ll find this sort of easy-to-imagine analogy in lots of articles on the subject. It’s easier to think of it this way rather than talking about “binding sites” and “cell types”.)

Most endocannabinoid “keys” will only fit specific “locks”. Thus, one type of cannabinoid will only bind with the receptors in certain locations.

When it does find a receptor which it matches, it starts off a series of events in the receptor cell. This process of signal transduction changes either some or all of:

  • The receptor cell’s activity
  • Its gene regulation activities
  • The signals it sends to adjacent cells


When was the endocannabinoid system discovered?

Scientists have known about the endocannabinoid system since 1990. Or rather, this was the first time someone noticed some kind of endogenous substance bonding with the cannabinoid receptors in the body.

They named this substance “anandamide” after ananda, a Sanskrit word meaning “bliss”.

In addition to a second endocannabinoid discovered in 1993 (named 2-AG), this is the cannabinoid which has been experimented with – and thus is understood – the most.

What does the ECS mean for the medicinal properties of cannabis?

The two main types of cannabinoid receptors in the human body (CB1-R and CB2-R) can both be activated by the cannabinoids in cannabis:


THC binds to the CB1-R receptors found in the brain. This is what creates the psychoactive effects of imbibing cannabis.

Because these receptors will set off a chain of events which regulate the release of chemical messengers when activated, THC can inhibit activity in the pain centers of the brain. It can also regulate nausea, seizures and muscle spasms.

Contrary to what was previously thought, CBD also attaches to a binding site on CB1-R receptors. Instead of the chain of events which THC will set off when it fits a “lock”, CBD will change the way in which the events will happen – potentially enhancing the effect.

This could make it a great benefit when trying to treat headaches and migraines, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, IBS and various dietary or appetite problems, such as anorexia or obesity.

All of these are linked to either too much or too little endocannabinoid activity.


CBD also binds to CB2-R receptors. These are mainly found outside of the brain in the:

  • Organs, such as the heart, liver and kidneys
  • Glands
  • Bones
  • Blood vessels
  • Reproductive organs

Being located in these regions means that CBD may be effective in treating all kinds of inflammations – in addition to its effect on signaling in the brain.

The endocannabinoid system and future research

We certainly don’t know everything there is to know about the endocannabinoid system as yet:

  • There is another type of receptor – TRPV1 – which regulates body temperature and transmits signals of heat and pain from outside the body. It shows many possibilities as an avenue for cannabinoid-based treatment.
  • Another receptor – GPR55 – is currently being speculated about.
  • The relationships between anandamide and THC and CBD and 2-AG, the second most well-known endocannabinoid, are also being investigated. These two phytocannabinoids are often said to mimic the effects of the endocannabinoid they are paired with.
  • There is also a great deal of research to be done on how different cannabinoids are agonists (action causers), antagonists (action preventers) or inverse agonists (causers of the opposite action) of various hormones or neurotransmitters in the human body.

We’ll all be watching this space for future developments!

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