The Endocannabinoid System

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is relatively new to science, but it has always been there. It influences many biological systems in the body, and it can be altered with cannabis use. When we smoke weed, we might never think about how its properties affect us on a molecular level. But it’s a good thing to understand the basics, especially when you’re looking for a specific type of feeling from a specific type of product.

Many physical and mental processes are partially regulated by the ECS, including homeostasis (the balance of our internal systems), appetite, memory, and emotional behaviors. (1) Scientists have also spent decades investigating THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids and their effects on the ECS. They have done so because cannabis isn’t just used recreationally. Study of the therapeutic uses of the cannabis plant is ongoing and is already showing promise in a number of therapeutic settings. 

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The Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System

The ECS was discovered by scientists Allyn Howlett and W.A. Devane in 1988 (1) – a discovery that came much later than the other systems of the human body. For context, the endocrine system was discovered in the 1800s, and the nervous system was even being investigated by the Ancient Greeks! Despite being late to the party, modern-day researchers have been studying the ECS ever since. 

The endocannabinoid system is the mechanism through which cannabis takes effect on our bodies. Its components include.

  • Fatty acids (lipids), chemical messengers (neurotransmitters), and compounds derived from acids (esters)
  • Enzymes that degrade cannabinoids (e.g. hydrolase)
  • Cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 in the nervous system

Cannabinoid Discoveries Over the Years

Cannabinoids are important components of the ECS. Each has its own unique properties, despite the fact that we usually only hear about THC and CBD. To date, as well as the “top two”, over 150 minor cannabinoids have been identified by researchers. Cannabinoids isolated from cannabis sativa include the following, and the year in which they were discovered: (2)

  • CBD/cannabidiol (1942)
  • THC/tetrahydrocannabinol (1964)
  • Delta-8-THC/tetrahydrocannabinol (1966)
  • CBG/cannabigerol (1972)
  • CBN/cannabinol (1972)
  • Delta-9-THCa/delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (1975)
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The Human Endocannabinoid System. Canna Culture Collective

Components of the ECS


Cannabinoids are chemical compounds. There are two distinct classifications. Phytocannabinoids are derived from the cannabis plant. Some well-known cannabinoids include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), and cannabinol (CBN). Endocannabinoids, as the name suggests, occur naturally in the body. They include specific lipids (fats), the neurotransmitter anandamide (ANA), and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). (1)

Cannabinoid Receptors

There are two cannabinoid receptor types in the body. They are usually found in cell membranes and work in slightly different ways. (3)

CB1: CB1 receptors are found in numerous places in the brain, including.

  • Hippocampus (learning, memory) 
  • Basal Ganglia (motor control, executive function)
  • Cortex  (problem-solving, sensorimotor functions)
  • Cerebellum (coordinated body movement)

CB2: CB2 receptors are more likely to be found in the peripheral nervous system and elsewhere in the body, such as macrophages (immune cells), tonsils, and spleen.

What Does the ECS Do?

The ECS has many functions, but the two below are the most important.(1)

  • Maintaining homeostasis (temperature, mood, and immune system)
  • Facilitating energy input and output throughout the body

It also has a strong influence in the following areas.(1)

  • Anxiety
  • Appetite
  • Emotional Behavior
  • Depression, Nervous Functions
  • Neuron Creation 
  • Protecting Neurons
  • Reward
  • Cognition
  • Learning
  • Memory 
  • Pain Sensation, 
  • Fertility, Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Development
  • Postnatal Development

How Does the ECS Work When I Use Cannabis?

Although the science is a little complex, it’s helpful to think of the ECS as a system that is constantly sending chemical messages around the body. To relate how the ECS works to a metaphor, we can liken the endocannabinoid system to a freeway, CB1 and CB2 receptors as parking spots, our natural endocannabinoids to cars, and cannabis phytocannabinoids to trucks. On a regular day without weed, the cars drive along the freeway, and park in specific spots. But, the parking spots can definitely fit a truck too! In this way, the cannabinoids from cannabis are able to infiltrate our endocannabinoid system, and we are able to get happily blazed!

Therapeutic Properties of CBD

While THC is known to be the major psychoactive agent in cannabis, CBD is a major nonpsychotropic cannabinoid with strong anti-inflammatory, antioxidant properties. (4)

In recent years, scientists have used these substances to help patients with the following physical and mental health conditions. (1)

  • Mood Disorders
  • Pain Management
  • Inflammation
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Epilepsy
  • Schizophrenia
  • Autoimmune Conditions
  • Skin Conditions
  • Eating Disorders

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Why Do We Feel Good?

It doesn’t take a seasoned weed connoisseur to know that the effects of cannabis are highly sought-after.  The key to its success as humanity’s longest-known medicinal plant is simple – the cannabinoids in weed are almost identical in structure to the endocannabinoids in our body. Smoking for medical reasons or for pleasure, we get the benefits of cannabis because of complex chemical interactions in our bodies!

THC mimics the chemical structure of the endocannabinoid anandamide. Because it’s so similar in structure, the brain can’t tell the difference, which allows THC to alter our brain’s communication with the rest of the body. THC attaches to CB1 receptors, disrupting the chemical messages that involve pleasure, memory, concentration, coordination, and more. (5)

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  1. Lowe H, Toyang N, Steele B, Bryant J, Ngwa W. The Endocannabinoid System: A Potential Target for the Treatment of Various Diseases. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2021;22(17):9472. doi:
  2. Shahbazi F, Grandi V, Banerjee A, Trant JF. Cannabinoids and Cannabinoid Receptors: The Story so Far. iScience. 2020;23(7):101301. doi: 
  3. Howlett AC, Abood ME. CB 1 and CB 2 Receptor Pharmacology. Cannabinoid Pharmacology. Published online 2017:169-206. doi: 
  4. Alger BE. Getting high on the endocannabinoid system. Cerebrum : the Dana forum on brain science. 2013;2013:14.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. How does marijuana produce its effects? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published July 2020. 
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