Hands holding a hemp cola with the text "The endocannabinoid system"

Have you ever wondered why your CBD oil helps you relax at the end of the day or why music sounds amazing after a recreational edible? All of hemp and cannabis’s effects can be traced back to the expansive system of receptors and neurotransmitters found throughout your body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). 

But it doesn’t end there. The endocannabinoid system plays a role in many of our bodily functions. In this post, we’re going to cover,

  • Three main components of the ECS
  • Physiological functions our ECS regulates 
  • The role phytocannabinoids play in our ECS

What Is CBD?

CBD is short for cannabidiol and one of the more than 100 chemicals hemp plants produce called cannabinoids. CBD isn’t psychoactive and won’t make you feel high like THC, another well-known cannabinoid, will. 

While research has yet to determine how CBD affects your body, we do know that as a cannabinoid, CBD works with your body’s ECS by facilitating the uptake of beneficial endocannabinoids.

What Is The Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system is an all-encompassing network of chemical signalers called endocannabinoids, cellular receptors, and cleanup enzymes packed throughout our brains and organs. 

Originally discovered in 1988 in a lab at the St. Louis University Medical School, the endocannabinoid system has yet to be fully understood.1 However, 25 years later we know about the three major endocannabinoid system components and how they affect our bodies.


Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds produced in the body (endo-). Our body produces endocannabinoid neurotransmitters to send messages to other parts of our body. 

Anandamide, the first endocannabinoid to be discovered in 1992, was named so because it’s involved in our brain’s reward and reinforcement functions. Some studies show that exercise seems to boost anandamide levels, running especially so, and can result in the “runner’s high.”2

A diagram of the endocannabinoid system receptors
A map of our CB1 and CB2 receptors


The two types of endocannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, are found throughout the body, mainly in the brain, central nervous systems, and organs. 

You’re more likely to find CB1 receptors in your brain and central nervous system. The CB1 receptors regulate functions including pain sensations, inflammation, memory, and appetite.3 The CB1 receptor can also be activated by external phytocannabinoids and lead to psychoactive effects like altered perception, relaxation, and euphoria. 

CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are more numerous in your organs and circulating immune cells. When activated by cannabinoids, CB2 receptors play a role in your body’s immune response to inflammation and neuropathic pain.4 


Enzymes play the role of cleanup crew for your endocannabinoid system.5 Once cannabinoids interact with your CB1 and CB2 receptors, enzymes break down the cannabinoids and flush them from your system to make way for newer cannabinoid messengers. 

Enzymes turn cannabinoids into metabolites that exit your body the same way everything else does. It’s these metabolites, specifically THC metabolites, that drug tests are looking for in urine tests— not the actual cannabinoid THC itself. 

Research has identified two main enzymes so far,

  • Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH) prevents excessive and prolonged activation of the CB1 receptor. 
  • Monoacylglycerol Lipase (MAGL)  prevents prolonged activation of both CB1 and CB2 receptors.

What Does The Endocannabinoid System Do?

Our endocannabinoid system helps our bodies regulate a variety of functions and processes. Its main focus isn’t to drive said processes but to help us humans maintain homeostasis by making us more resilient to external pressures.

Emotional Regulation

The endocannabinoid system helps keep our moods stable by playing a role in anxiety and fear memory processing.6 Anandamide and our CB1 receptor can help us have an appropriate reaction to stressful or anxiety-inducing events


Our endocannabinoid system plays a crucial role in how we perceive pain and discomfort.7 When we experience painful stimuli, our body produces endocannabinoids to help us regulate our perception of the pain. 

We’ve been able to manufacture pharmaceuticals that inhibit the ECS’s natural enzymes to increase the levels of our endocannabinoids. A surplus of endocannabinoids can reduce the amount of pain we feel.


Because CB2 receptors are activated around the body when we’re experiencing inflammation, we know that the endocannabinoid system helps regulate our immune and inflammation response. While researchers have yet to fully understand the relationship, we do know that endocannabinoids can help reduce inflammation by binding to CB2 receptors and regulating our immune response. 8

The endocannabinoid Anandamide
The endocannabinoid Anandamide has been linked to the sleep-wake cycle and adenosine


Researchers believe that endocannabinoids are involved in our sleep cycle and the time we spend in certain sleep states. Some studies have also linked Anandamide to our sleep-wake cycle and the neurotransmitter adenosine.9

It’s also believed that phytocannabinoids can affect sleep quality and sleep cycle.10 Researchers are studying THC and CBD for their effect on sleep and sleep cycle regulation

Related: Can You Use CBN For Sleep?

Memory & Learning

Multiple studies have concluded that there seems to be a link between the endocannabinoid system and our brain’s ability to learn and commit experiences to memory. Part of this function is due to our ECS’s role in our ability to process stressful situations and part of this is due to phytocannabinoids, namely THCs, ability to hinder our short-term memory. 

Cardiovascular Function

The endocannabinoid system influences our cardiovascular system by modulating several processes critical in preventing atherosclerosis, a condition characterized by the hardening of the arteries and caused by plaque buildup.11

Related: Can CBD help with erectile dysfunction?

The Role Of Phytocannabinoids

The endocannabinoid system has not only expanded our understanding of human biology, but it has also opened a new horizon of all-natural plant-based therapies. 

Hemp flower, and cannabis in general, produces cannabinoids external to our bodies. We refer to phytocannabinoids as such because they come from plants (phyto-.) The most popular phytocannabinoids are by far delta-9 THC and CBD.

THC is a CB1 agonist and is responsible for cannabis’s psychoactive properties like time dilation and euphoria. CBD, on the other hand, doesn’t produce any feelings of intoxication, though some research indicates that it may help alleviate pain and help with sleep by facilitating the uptake of beneficial endocannabinoids. 

The cannabis plant produces over 100 cannabinoids, THC and CBD are just two of them. As we learn more about the endocannabinoid system, different phytocannabinoids, and the entourage effect we may finally figure out how to fine-tune plant-based therapies for certain ailments.

Endocannabinoid System & Future Research 

The endocannabinoid system and its interactions with endogenous and phytocannabinoids are undoubtedly an exciting horizon for medicine and academic research, but there’s still a hangup— the law. 

Because cannabis, specifically THC, is still federally illegal, large-scale cannabis research is hard to perform. What’s more, federal agencies likely won’t accept any results. As far as the FDA and DEA are concerned, cannabis has no accepted medical use despite 38 U.S. states running medical marijuana programs. 

That said, endocannabinoid system research is still ramping up, and we should expect to see some exciting new findings in the coming years.


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