What Is The Endocannabinoid System?

Less than 30 years ago, scientists discovered a neuromodulatory system that they'd never identified before. This endocannabinoid system is a network of receptors throughout the body. It seems that the endocannabinoid system works to keep the body in balance, affecting the nervous system, the immune system, and nearly all the organs in the body.

Human Endocannabinoid System

How does it work?

At first, scientists thought that these receptors were only found in the brain and nerve tissue. But over time it's become clear that they are all throughout the body. They can be found in the liver, skin, pancreas, immune cells, bone, fat tissue, kidney, skeletal muscle, gastrointestinal tract, blood vessels, and heart. The body makes molecules that fit into these receptors like puzzle pieces. Since these molecules are remarkably similar to cannabinoids that are found in cannabis plants they're known as endocannabinoids (endo meaning internal or within).

When endocannabinoids fit into their receptors, it alters the ways the body systems work. Depending on where the receptor is found and which molecule attaches to it, this can affect digestion, inflammation, pain, anxiety, depression, metabolism, sleep, and more.


Scientists have identified two main endocannabinoid receptors. CB1 receptors are mostly found in the central nervous system, especially in different parts of the brain. CB2 receptors are found in the peripheral nervous system, particularly in immune cells. While CB1 receptors seem to be mostly involved with brain processes, CB2 receptors often seem to respond to injury or illness. When there's damage or inflammation in tissue, the body can create 100 times the CB2 receptors in the area.

How does it interact with THC and CBD?

As mentioned before, the endocannabinoid molecules that your body makes are very similar to the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. This is why cannabinoids affect the body in the ways they do - effects that go far beyond the "high" of marijuana and that scientists are only beginning to understand. The two major cannabinoids, THC and CBD, target different receptors and produce different effects in the body.


The reason THC causes intoxication is that it mostly attaches to CB1 receptors in the brain, causing the euphoria that people associate with marijuana. Anandamide is the endocannabinoid that the body makes for that receptor. The enzymes that break down the anandamide do not break down THC as quickly, so those molecules remain in place much longer. This is why THC causes euphoria, while anandamide merely has a calming effect.

THC doesn't only make people high; it can also be helpful in treating conditions such as muscle spasticity, glaucoma, insomnia, and increasing appetite. Interestingly, THC can both induce anxiety and reduce it. This may be a dose-dependent reaction, or different people just may be affected differently.


Cannabidiol largely targets CB2 receptors, so its effects can be found throughout the body, and it has a greater impact on the immune system. Keep in mind that the body can create many more CB2 receptors at the site of inflammation or tissue damage, so CBD is able to go where ever it's most needed. Some of the conditions that CBD is being studied to treat are chronic pain, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, anxiety, inflammation, migraines, arthritis, and PTSD.

Although CBD doesn't generally attach to CB1 receptors, it can alter them slightly so THC doesn't attach. This is why modern marijuana has been bred to have lower levels of CBD in relation to THC, to produce a greater "high." CBD can also alter CB2 receptors in ways that may account for its anti-inflammatory effects.

Science is just beginning to understand the endocannabinoid system and all the ways it keeps the body in balance. The interaction of cannabinoids with that system is a fascinating area of research. The more information scientists uncover the more promise CBD shows for many conditions.

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