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What is the Endocannabinoid System & How Does it Work?

Endocannabinoid system diagram with hemp leaf in background

Cannabis and it's compounds offer a wide variety of benefits to humans and animals. They are impressive in that this potential comes with minimal side effects, especially when compared to traditional pharmaceutical options which often carry diverse risks.

So how can one plant have such a wide-ranging impact on the body? How can cannabis so effective, while also being safe to use? Questions like these have spurred an explosive amount of research on the subject. This research on cannabis's effects has led to the discovery of an extremely important system of physiology.

Named after the plant that spurred its discovery, this system is known as the endocannabinoid system or ECS. The ECS, which is found in all vertebrates works to constantly maintain balance at a cellular level from before birth to death.

Continue on as we take a deeper look at the endocannabinoid system, its discovery, and how cannabis consumption influences it. By the end, you'll understand how and why balancing the endocannabinoid system helps promote overall health throughout the entire body.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system contains a set of endocannabinoids that are produced from within the body. These compounds activate a network of cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. Two primary receptors have been identified, CB1 and CB2. This system is involved in regulating a wide variety of physiological and cognitive processes. The ECS plays a role in appetite, pain sensation, mood, memory, metabolism, immune function, sleep, and more.

Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the brain, immune cells, organs, connective tissues, and glands. The system performs a unique role in each location that it resides, yet the overall goal is the same. The endocannabinoid system works to achieve system-level balance through homeostasis. In practical terms, the ECS works to create an inner balance that might be thrown off by external influences and environmental disturbances.

The identification of receptors and the endogenous cannabinoid compounds produced in the body has resulted in a scientifically advanced human understanding of biology, health, and disease.

What Are Cannabinoid Receptors & How do they Work?

Cannabinoid Receptor

The cannabinoid receptors that make up the endocannabinoid system are embedded in cell membranes throughout the body. Researchers have identified two main types of receptors: CB1 and CB2, both being G protein-coupled receptors (GPCR). When stimulated by cannabinoids, a range of physiologic processes occur:

Research has pointed to a receptor called GPR55 being the third cannabinoid receptor with distinct signaling that differs from CB1 and CB2. Though sometimes referred to as the CB3 receptor, this receptor is still not widely accepted and cited.

Types of Cannabinoids that Interact with the ECS

There are three types of cannabinoids that are known to interact with this system. These compounds are named for their source or origin.


Anandamide Molecule

Endo, short for endogenous, means having an internal origin. Endocannabinoids are substances that our body naturally produces. These compounds interact with the endocannabinoid system, stimulating the CB1 and CB2 receptors. The two most well-known molecules are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol.

Anandamide was first discovered in 1992 by legendary cannabis researcher Raphael Mechoulam. This endocannabinoid influences the central or peripheral nervous system and is mainly involved in immune system function. 2-Arachidonoylglycerol or 2-AG, also discovered by Raphael Mechoulam, is a full agonist of the CB1 receptor.


Cannabis Plant Closeup

Phyto, short for phytochemical, are chemical compounds produced by plants. Phytocannabinoids, often referred to simply as cannabinoids are a wide range of compounds found in varying quantities within the cannabis plant. There are over 110 known phytocannabinoids that have been isolated from cannabis. These compounds have unique interactions with the endocannabinoid system when introduced into the bloodstream.

The most two well-known phytocannabinoids are Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is known for its psychoactivity and cannabidiol (CBD) known for its wide range of therapeutic uses. Other cannabinoids like cannabinol (CBN), cannabigerol (CBG), cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) are being researched for their unique interactions with the body.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

The last type of cannabinoid is lab-created by pharmaceutical researchers. Synthetic cannabinoids such as synthetic THC have been created as medicines. Drugs Marinol and Cesamet are THC analogs, approved by the FDA for treatment of severe nausea and wasting syndrome.

Maintain Balance with CBD Supplementation

Woman walking on a balance beam

Your body is producing endocannabinoids all the time in an effort to maintain balance and harmony within the system. Outside influences impact the performance of this system. Sometimes your body needs a little help, which is why taking cannabis-based medicines can help support the system. The goal is to supplement your system with the proper dose of cannabis to achieve a state of strength, balance, and overall resilience.

The effectiveness of supplementing your ECS with CBD-rich extracts has led to the widespread use of CBD products to help alleviate sleep, soreness, recovery, stress, and other health-related issues.

Researchers continue to investigate how ingesting cannabinoids can provide therapeutic benefits to the user. The ongoing investigation of cannabinoid potency, contents, and dose, when applied to a wide range of health-related topics, will continue to expand our knowledge of this complex system.

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