The Endocannabinoid System

by Tom Russell October 18, 2020

The Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) can be found throughout the body. It plays a key role in keeping us healthy and allows substances like CBD and THC to affect our brain and body chemistry.

Decades of scientific research have only just begun to unlock the mysteries of the ECS. It’s likely to hold the key to fully understanding how some useful plant substances can produce incredible beneficial effects.

“The discovery of the Endocannabinoid system is the single most important medical scientific discovery ever.” - Dr David Allen, Cannabinoid Research Scientist.

What is the endocannabinoid system? 

Raphael Mechoulam

The endocannabinoid system is a network of chemicals and receptors found throughout the human body. Its function is still not fully understood but current research suggests that it is a chemical signalling system that helps to return your internal body conditions to a state of healthy balance.

The processes that keeps this balance are known collectively as the homeostatic mechanism. They keep our bodies in good health by ensuring that things such as temperature and acidity are kept within safe levels. Just like the thermostat in your home’s heating system, the homeostatic mechanism makes tiny adjustments to keep the ideal balance.

Stresses that come from outside our bodies, as well as internal ones like disease, can upset this balance. If your ECS is in good health and has everything it needs, your body can quickly return to normal. If it’s not working well or does not have enough signalling molecules, you may remain out of balance for longer.

The ECS is made of several different parts, including:

Endocannabinoids - These are molecules that can interact with other body systems to produce effects such as pain regulation, motivation, and pleasure. They are produced within the body; ‘endo’ comes from ‘Endogenous’ which means ‘originating within an organism’. The two endocannabinoids that have been identified are called anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).

If your body doesn’t produce enough endocannabinoids, the endocannabinoid deficiency’ theory suggests that it may not be able to efficiently restore a state of balance. When body systems are put under pressure by external stress or internal issues like disease, without enough endocannabinoids they can’t respond efficiently. The theory indicates that this could allow diseases and chronic conditions to develop.


Endocannabinoid receptors - These are receptors that your body’s endocannabinoids bind to directly to as part of a chemical signalling process. The two that scientists have discovered so far are known as CB1 and CB2

CB1 - most commonly found in the brain and spinal cord. It’s a protein that binds directly to anandamide and 2-AG. When activated it regulates several brain functions, including the release of serotonin and dopamine. It also creates an effect that improves the transmission of electrical signals as they travel from nerve cell to nerve cell.

CB2 – these receptors are also proteins and are present on immune cells around the body as well as in the spleen, bones and liver. When endocannabinoids bind with CB2, it switches on processes that can promote cell survival.

Other chemicals and enzymes - Several other chemicals are present around the receptors and can affect how the endocannabinoids bind to them. The ones that we know most about are enzymes. These enzymes are responsible for breaking down the endocannabinoids once they’ve bound to the receptors and their job is done.

What are cannabinoids? 


The endocannabinoids in our bodies are part of a broader group of substances known as cannabinoids. The name cannabinoid refers to a group of natural chemicals that have the same shape or function as those found in cannabis plants.

Cannabinoids produced in humans and animals, like anandamide and 2-AG, are known as endocannabinoids and those found in plants, CBD and THC are phytocannabinoids (plant cannabinoids). CBD and THC are the most well-known plant cannabinoids and are the ones found in the highest concentrations in most cannabis plants.

When a plant cannabinoid, like CBD or THC is ingested by a human it affects their ECS. Because it interacts with receptors in a different way to the animal’s own endocannabinoids, they produce a range of different effects.

How does CBD interact with the body? 


While as yet, there is no conclusive evidence of exactly how CBD interacts with your body, there are some things we do know and a couple of useful theories. We know that CBD doesn’t bind directly with either CB1 receptors or CB2 receptors. Instead, most scientists believe, that it interacts with nearby enzymes that are present to break down the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG. 

By doing this they block the enzymes and prevent your endocannabinoids from being broken down after they’ve been used. As a result, your endocannabinoid levels build up allowing your body to respond quickly and efficiently to imbalances. 

Not everyone agrees with this however, some scientists think that either it interacts with the receptors in a different way or that it binds with as yet undiscovered endocannabinoid receptors.

How does THC influence the endocannabinoid system?

THC is more direct and can bind with both CB1 and CB2 receptors. This interaction results in the ‘high’ that THC-rich strains of cannabis are famous for. The high is actually a broad range of effects including intoxication, relaxation, paranoia, anxiety and an increase in appetite.


While more research is needed for us to know more about the ECS and how it interacts with CBD, it offers incredible potential for the future. Not only could CBD influence the amount of endocannabinoids in your body, but there are hundreds of other cannabinoids yet to be researched that may provide other useful effects.

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Tom Russell
Tom Russell


Tom Russell writes extensively about CBD oil and other groundbreaking food supplements. He and his wife share their home with two daughters and a lifetime’s collection of books.

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