What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

08 December, 2022
What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

You love cannabis and so do we. It's why we're all here. And we also love learning the science explaining how it works. 

We've covered many aspects of our favorite plant, breaking it down to its terpenes and cannabinoids. By now, we know a lot about what makes cannabis tick. But what about what makes us tick? What's happening inside of us to cause those beneficial effects? After all, cannabis consumption is not a one-sided practice. It takes two to tango, so now we're going to explore cannabis' dance partner: The endocannabinoid system.

Our long-time readers have seen it come up many times before, and those who are joining for the first time have likely heard or read about it as well. This time, we're shining the spotlight on the endocannabinoid system so you can understand exactly how it works.


A Little Background

The term "endocannabinoid" is a synthesis of the words "endogenous" and "cannabinoid," the latter of which is derived from the term "cannabis." Endogenous basically describes something that is made within our bodies, meaning we naturally produce chemicals that are similar to those found in cannabis. No wonder it's such a good fit!

Interestingly, the endocannabinoid system was discovered in the early 1990s thanks to cannabis research. That's right! We have our favorite plant to thank for discovering a natural part of our physiology. 

The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, was an important discovery because it's part of what keeps our bodies in good working order, maintaining appetite, sleep cycle, memory retention, motor function, mood, metabolism, and many other processes. Regardless of whether or not you consume cannabis, the ECS will continue to do its thing. With that said, it makes sense to ingest cannabinoids like CBD and THC to give the system a little boost.


The Endocannabinoid System Broken Down

Your ECS is comprised of receptors, enzymes, and, of course, endocannabinoids. Receptors exist everywhere within your body and are mostly classified as CB1 or CB2. Your central nervous system is where you'll find most CB1 receptors, while your peripheral nervous system (located inside extremities), immune cells, and digestive system contain mostly CB2 receptors. Enzymes are there to clean up the endocannabinoids after they've done their job to ensure homeostasis. And the endocannabinoids are like the cannabinoids found in cannabis except they naturally occur inside of you, existing within your tissues and organs. They are essentially neurotransmitters that are lipid-based, carrying messages from one nerve cell to another.

Endocannabinoids will bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors depending on what your body needs, and they are only released to address whatever specific imbalance is occurring. If you're experiencing pain sensations, endocannabinoids can bind with a spinal nerve's CB1 receptors to offer some relief. Inflammation could trigger these chemicals to seek CB2 receptors to help immune cells go to work. If you're overheating, the ECS kicks in to make you sweat. If you need food, it will trigger hunger pangs so you can fill your tank. Ultimately, the ECS appears to exist for the purpose of keeping your body in a state of homeostasis.


How Cannabinoids Factor In

Because they are so similar to endocannabinoids, cannabinoids can also bind to receptors in the ECS. THC is able to interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors, while CBD seems to have its own way of influencing your ECS — though we're still not sure exactly how. One theory is that instead of working with receptors, it extends the shelf life of endocannabinoids so you get even more healing benefits. Another theory is that CBD interacts with an unknown receptor that has yet to be classified.

THC is very similar to an endocannabinoid known as anandamide, though the latter doesn't cause the energizing head buzz you'd get from ingesting the former. The reason THC causes psychotropic effects is that the enzymes in your ECS are unable to break this cannabinoid down, and thus it remains in your system far longer than endocannabinoids.


Why It Matters

Now that we have a better understanding of what the endocannabinoid system does and how it works, it makes even more sense why science is gradually pointing to the medicinal applications of cannabis. The more the plant is legalized, the more researchers can learn about its healing properties. 

This may also help you see why our fight for legalization is so important. It's not just to have a good time (though we're not opposed to that either). It's about building an opportunity for scientists to unlock all the secrets of cannabis. Already, we're seeing medications based on lab-generated cannabinoids, so clearly, something is working. At the end of the day, it's about discovering the full potential of this plant so we can readily restore ourselves to homeostasis whenever we're suffering.