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Endocannabinoid System: What is its Role in the Body?

9 min read
Endocannabinoid System

Endocannabinoid System: What is its Role in the Body?

9 min read

Medically reviewed by

The endocannabinoid system was only discovered relatively recently – so you’ll be forgiven if you’ve not heard of it. But it’s very important, so read on to find out all about it.

In this guide:

With CBD oil growing rapidly in popularity, the endocannabinoid system is becoming more and more a common part of popular discussion.

But what exactly is this mysterious part of our bodies that many of us had never heard of before? 

In this post, we will answer:

The endocannabinoid system
  • What is the endocannabinoid system?
  • Who discovered the endocannabinoid system?
  • What is the role of the ECS in the human body?
  • How do cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system?

Let’s dive in.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

Considering humankind has a long term relationship with both hemp and cannabis, it may come as a surprise that the endocannabinoid system is a relatively recent discovery.

In fact, CBD itself was only first isolated in Israel in 1964The first cannabinoid receptor was discovered in the brain of a rat in 1988.

It was only in 1990 when a team from the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Science began looking into this discovery and cloning CB receptors, leading to the first steps of understanding the endocannabinoid system. 

It was rapidly discovered that endocannabinoids and the receptors they bind to in our bodies are present in every area of our central nervous systems, organs and cells.

They make up a fundamental part of our immune system and help our bodies to keep themselves healthy and balanced.

All of the other fundamental systems of our bodies are permeated by the endocannabinoid system and its endocannabinoid receptors

The ECS actually has the ability to regulate and help manage all of the other systems!

The simplest comparison to explain this is that in the same way that the central nervous system connects our body’s internal systems and helps them to communicate with each other, the ECS helps maintain a state of wellbeing and homeostasis. 

In other words, it works hard to maintain a stable environment as all of the other systems and organs change and react around it.

Now that you know the function and purpose of the ECS, let’s take a look at the individual parts that allow it to function:

What is the Endocannabinoid System Made Up Of?

The simplest way to think of the ECS is as a series of keys and locks. 

Cannabinoids such as THCCBD and CBN are the keys, and any time they fit into one of the cannabinoid receptors (the locks) a certain effect or rebalance takes place in the body.

CB1 Receptors are present in the brain and spinal cord. Their purpose is to help us regulate our sleep, appetite, memory, and to manage pain.

CB2 Receptors are found all around the body but are most prominent in areas related to the immune system. 

These receptors help to reduce and manage inflammation.

Research is still underway in regards to our cannabinoid receptors, and many scientists believe in the existence of an as yet unproven CB3 receptor.

what is the endocannabinoid system made up of
These cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoid system help keep the body within a state of homeostasis

What are Cannabinoids?

As previously mentioned, cannabinoids are the “keys” of the endocannabinoid system.

Every time one cannabinoid fits into one receptor, a specific effect occurs within the body. 

Exactly what this effect may be depends on the cannabinoid, the receptor, and the location within the body.

With over 100 cannabinoids found in the hemp plant, it’s going to be a long time before we get a full understanding of the individual interactions they can all make.

The human body naturally produces cannabinoids, but you can also take them as a supplement like CBD oil.

The two most common types of cannabinoids found in the human body, however, are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol, otherwise known as 2-AG.

2-AG is by far the most common cannabinoid within our bodies and helps to regulate appetite, pain, and our immune systems. 

Anandamide is heavily involved in the “reward” feeling we experience after exercise, popularly known as the “bliss molecule”.

These are just two of the naturally occurring cannabinoids in our bodies – but we expect more to be discovered regularly in the near future.

what are cannabinoids
Cannabinoids that are found naturally within the body are called endocannabinoids, whereas CBD and THC are known as phytocannabinoids

How Does THC Interact with the Endocannabinoid System?

THC is the most famous cannabinoid, since it is the compound that gets cannabis smokers “high”.

It binds to receptors just like endocannabinoids and other cannabinoids. However, THC (or Tetrahydrocannabinol) is relatively unique in that it can bind to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors. 

It is thought by some researchers that this is in part responsible for the heightened symptoms of THC use in humans, relative to other cannabinoids.

THC has been found to have some positive benefits for wellbeing. However, it also has numerous negative side effects – often including paranoia and anxiety.

How Does CBD Interact with the Endocannabinoid System?

Unlike THC, CBD does not get you “high” and hasn’t been found to cause any negative symptoms with any significant regularity.

CBD is still a bit of a mystery to many researchers and scientists. It is known that it does not bind with the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the same way as THC. 

However, the way it does interact with the endocannabinoid system is still the subject of a lot of speculation and research.

Many researchers have suggested that CBD works by preventing endocannabinoids from being broken down, therefore increasing their impact on the body. While there is evidence to support this, it isn’t conclusive so far.

Other scientists have theorised that CBD binds to an as-yet undiscovered CB3 receptor.

how do CBD and THC react with the ECS
As more research is carried out, we'll find out more - but the ECS is only a recent discovery so it's no surprise the knowledge is limited

How does the Endocannabinoid System Regulate the Central Nervous System?

Given what we’ve just explained to you, and knowing that the central nervous system (CNS) coordinates specific actions throughout the body, it may be a little too easy to get them mixed up.

The CNS comprises the brain, spinal cord, and all of our nerves. It transmits information to the brain whenever our nerves experience stimulation, allowing the brain to make immediate decisions on how we should react. 

It also helps with automated bodily functions such as our heartbeat, breathing or digestion.

The CNS exists on a scale between overstimulation (where it is in a heightened response mode, otherwise known as fight or flight) and exhaustion (where it may struggle to function properly at all).

The endocannabinoid system prevents the CNS from going too far towards either of these extremes, helping to keep it in the ideal position of “alert and ready, yet calm”.

This is likely the reason such positive results have been found when using CBD for anxiety, stress, and other similar complaints that may begin with an overstimulated central nervous system.

The way the ECS manages to achieve this is through the use of GABA and Glutamate.

Endocannabinoid system and the Central nervous system
The way the ECS works with the CNS is one of the main reasons why scientists believe cannabinoids from hemp could be beneficial for the body

Which Neurotransmitters are used by the ECS?

GABA and Glutamate are two neurotransmitters that are used by the ECS to manage your nervous system:

Glutamate excites the system and can be used to stimulate a response when the body isn’t reacting enough. Excess glutamate in the body can lead to issues as wide-ranging as:

  • Migraines
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Epilepsy

Read more: CBD Oil for Migraines

GABA calms the system and can be used to relax the nervous system’s response in times of extreme stress or heightened sensitivity.

GABA and Glutamate naturally complement each other within the human body and an excess of one or the other will always be an issue, but the endocannabinoid system helps to make sure they are in balance.

But how is this possible?

To explain, we first have to explain how brain cells work, as while the ECS is unique, it has some similarities:

How does the Human Endocannabinoid System Work?

Brain cells essentially operate as a network within the brain, individually transmitting chemical signals to each other in order to coordinate and manage all of the functions the brain is involved in. 

The way this actually works in practice is, the neurons of our brain release neurotransmitters

These neurotransmitters come out of the presynaptic cell and jump a small distance across to the postsynaptic cells, after which they bind to receptors. 

This binding is one node or step of the brain cell network, with a large trail of receptors helping to deliver the message or signal across the brain.

The ECS actually does the same thing but works backwards, sending messages from the postsynaptic cells to the presynaptic.

This helps it to maintain balance and help manage the CNS because cannabinoids can prevent the release of GABA or Glutamate in the case of excess.

In other words, if a presynaptic neuron is releasing GABA or Glutamate too quickly, cannabinoids leap over from the postsynaptic neuron to slow down their release and restore balance.

This leads to a relaxed and healthy mental state, natural body function and general health!

How does the endocannabinoid system work
GABA and Glutamate are involved in the stress and anxiety response, so preventing their release should calm someone down

What is the Result of an Endocannabinoid Deficiency?

Studies reviewing over a decade of past research into the ECS in the hopes of answering this question found that low endocannabinoid levels in the body can lead to the underperformance of the ECS, leading to problems such as:


While more studies into this topic are expected soon, this gives us a good picture of what cannabinoids actually do for our bodies on a day to day basis.

Read more: CBD Oil for IBS

The Endocannabinoid System’s Interactions with Other Systems

The Cardiovascular System

Endocannabinoid system research has found that the ECS has a crucial role in regulating heart rate and blood pressure.

Cannabinoid receptors are even present in the muscular wall of the heart and have the ability to decrease blood pressure by causing the blood vessels to dilate. 

They have even been found to reduce blood pressure by directly reducing the strength of the heart’s contractions.

The Immune System

The ECS is closely connected to the immune system and is a fundamental part of keeping us healthy and free of infection and disease. 

Our immune cells not only have cannabinoid receptors, but they also produce cannabinoids and break them down once they’re no longer needed.

This allows the ECS to provide the same fine-tuned balancing act it does for the CNS. If our immune system is overactive, it can attack the body’s own cells causing serious health issues. 

When it is underactive, our protection from disease is down and we typically become ill.

The endocannabinoid system in the body keeps our immune system away from either end of the scale and encourages it to keep working correctly. 

CBD actually does this for the hemp plant itself and is a crucial part of the plant’s defensive mechanisms, so it should come as no surprise that taking CBD boosts your own endocannabinoid system interactions.

Research into the endocannabinoid system’s connection to our immune system is ongoing.

The studies are likely to bear more fruit very soon, we haven’t even gone into the benefits of the endocannabinoid system in protecting against inflammation yet.

One thing is for sure, cannabinoid receptors are present at every stage of our immune system and play a crucial part in the communications in requires and in creating and maintaining immune homeostasis.

The Digestive System

Once again, endocannabinoid receptors are present throughout the entire digestive system and are closely linked with it in numerous ways. 

The ECS is involved in controlling our appetite and desire for food and also helps to regulate our digestion, meaning a properly functioning ECS we are able to absorb food more quickly and efficiently.

How does the endocannabinoid system interact with other systems
The ECS is a crucial part of the body's daily, natural processes - like the immune system

The Endocrine System

The endocrine system is perhaps the least well known of all of the bodily symptoms besides the endocannabinoid system itself.

Our endocrine systems are networks of glands and organs responsible for regulating our blood sugar through the use of hormones and as a result, are directly responsible for:

  • Energy levels
  • Libido
  • Cell repair
  • Metabolism
  • Sexual function
  • Mood

Many endocrine disorders such as hyperthyroidism or diabetes may be linked to an imbalance of the endocannabinoid system. 

The ECS helps to regulate and balance the endocrine functions of the brain and body, including the release of hormones that are fundamental to healthy brain function such as oxytocin and vasopressin.

Countless research studies have indicated that the endocannabinoid system alters and regulates the release of hormones, keeping our reproductive functions, stress responses, and even metabolism in check.

The Skeletal System

If there is any system of the body we’d expect not to be listed here, this is the one, but nope! The ECS really is this intrinsically linked to the human body as a whole. 

The ECS plays a part in regulating bone cell growth and maintenance, and cannabinoid receptors help the body respond to damaged or broken bones by communicating to the body when it should create new bone cells and when it shouldn’t.

Imbalances in this can cause issues such as osteoporosis making the bones more easily damaged, or even overgrown bones on the other end of the scale. 

All of these systems are actually one system

While we know of all of the body’s internal systems separately, this is simply a way of making the body more understandable. 

In reality, all of these systems are constantly interacting with each other and the endocannabinoid is right there at the centre, regulating and modulating all of them, and keeping our bodies healthy and under control.

Have you ever felt sick or lost your appetite due to an unpleasant thought or bad mood?

This is because our gut contains the second highest amount of neurons after the brain, meaning the central nervous system and digestive system are so closely related that it’s difficult to truly call them separate things.

The same goes for most other systems of the bodies, and the endocannabinoid system is a fundamental part of each of them – necessary to keep each system working together within reasonable limits and keep the body healthy and well balanced overall.

Now that you know how the endocannabinoid system relates to the rest of the body, it should be a lot less surprising that CBD has been found to encourage bodily wellness.

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