The Endocannabinoid System

The human body is constantly working to maintain balance — with its own internal systems as well as its external surroundings. Located within every organ of the body is a system that is partially responsi- ble for ensuring that balance.

It is because of this system, the endocannabinoid system (ECS), that cannabinoids like CBD and THC can help with everything from pain perception to sleep, the immune system, appetite, memory, and even temperature regulation.

In order to understand how cannabinoids can help you, it’s important to understand how they work — the endocannabinoid system.

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system is made up of three parts, all of which work in unison with one another.

Cannabinoid receptors, which were named because they interact with cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant, are located on the surface of cells in almost every part of the body. These receptors, which you can think of as locks, are activated by two primary keys produced by the body known as endocannabinoids. The cannabis plant and its cannabinoids also hold the key to those receptors. The third part, a special set of enzymes, synthesize and later break down those cannabinoids.

The two main cannabinoid receptors are:

Cannabinoid medicine has come a long way since the days when you had to smoke a joint to get relief. Most hemp and CBD products on the market today come as oil extracts, tinctures, edibles, and topical creams or balms. That said, in some states CBD-rich hemp flower is available in forms that can be smoked or vaporized. Each of these methods and types of products have unique properties that could make them the right or wrong choice for you. You may also need to do some trial and error before finding the best one.

  • CB1 (cannabinoid receptor 1) are scattered throughout the body. Their highest concentrations are located in the central nervous sys- tem, although they are also found in nerves elsewhere in the body.
  • CB2 (cannabinoid receptor 2), also located all over the body, are most concentrated in the peripheral nervous system, and regulate organ function, muscle movement, and play a role in the immune system and inflammatory responses.

The two main endocannabinoids are:

  • Anandamide, sometimes called the “bliss molecule,” is involved in the regulation of functions such as mood and emotion.
  • 2-AG is involved in reducing inflammation and regulating other parts of the immune system. It is also involved in modulating pain perception, emotion, mood, memory, sleep, and even reproductive health.

It is because the cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant
— known as phytocannabinoids — also interact with cannabinoid receptors, that medical cannabis and other hemp and CBD products have so much therapeutic potential. The endocannabinoid system itself was only discovered in the 1990s, partly due to long-standing legal prohibitions the research into how phytocannabinoids work is still in its early days, but we already know a lot about what it can do and how much potential it has.

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The Main Functions of the Endocannabinoid System

We know from research that the endocannabinoid system regulates a great number of body systems and functions, including:

Pain Perception

Researchers understand the endocannabinoid system to be a major part of how the body regulates pain. Studies have shown that as more anandamide is released into the blood, pain perception goes down.

Sleep Cycles

Studies have shown that sleep can be induced by activating CB1 receptors. Meanwhile, elevated levels of cannabinoid receptors have been shown to be involved in recovery from disruptions in the sleep cycle.

Memory and Learning

The endocannabinoid system is involved at various levels in the reg- ulation of memory, cognition, and learning. The regions of the brain associated with memory and cognition have high concentrations of CB1 receptors, which scientists believe affect emotional behavior and cognitive processes.


Studies have shown that changes in the endocannabinoid system can affect how the body metabolizes fat and macronutrients, as well as regulating food intake. Other studies suggest that modulating the ECS could one day show promise for treating obesity and eating disorders.

Immune System

Researchers believe that the endocannabinoid system can both downregulate and upregulate the immune system. Numerous studies are looking at the ability of cannabinoids, and different ways of mod- ulating endocannabinoids, to treat inflammation and autoimmune diseases as well as other conditions caused by an overactive immune system.

Autonomic Processes

Some of the processes regulated by the body’s parasympathetic ner- vous system, including heart rate, digestion, thermoregulation, pupil dilation, and blood pressure, can be affected by the endocannabinoid system.


Homeostasis, or balance, is the body’s way of maintaining the opti- mal internal conditions for our health under changing conditions — a process that is always taking place.

Certain stimuli can trigger responses inside our bodies which lead to adjustments that help maintain that balance. For instance, when the body gets too hot, it produces sweat, which acts to cool it down.

Researchers believe that the endocannabinoid system is largely responsible for maintaining homeostasis in the body. When there is imbalance in the body, the endocannabinoid system sends out signals to its receptors, telling it what type of adjustment should be made. Based on that knowledge, some scientists believe that some medical conditions can even be explained by a malfunctioning endocannabi- noid system, known as endocannabinoid deficiency.

Where CBD Comes In

There are at least 144 different cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant. The two primary phytocannabinoids, which we also know the most about, are THC and CBD. The most common, THC, is responsible for the euphoric “high” and other effects associated with marijuana. Cannabis with very low levels of THC, called hemp, usually has much higher levels of CBD.

CBD does not have the psychotropic effects of THC but it does inter- act with the endocannabinoid system and has been shown to have significant effects for various conditions and symptoms. Most notably, the FDA approved a cannabis-derived CBD drug (Epidiolex) in 2018 as a treatment for rare types of epilepsy in children.

CBD has also been shown to be a powerful anti-inflammatory, to have promising effects on anxiety and depression, to affect the sleep cycle, to help with nausea, to counteract some of the psychotropic effects of THC, and is even being investigated for its neuroprotective properties.

Everyone’s ECS is Unique

Everyone’s endocannabinoid system is unique — with different num- bers of receptors, different levels of cannabinoids, and enzymes that react uniquely. That means that our bodies operate differently without any outside stimuli, but also that we respond to external stimuli like hemp and cannabis differently.

This helps explain why CBD works better for some people than for others, but also why finding the right dose and even way of taking it is so important. Finding that sweet spot is sometimes called finding the “Goldilocks Zone.” Learn more about how to find the right hemp product for you here.