What is the Endocannabinoid System & What Does It Do?

February 14, 2023

We all know that things feel a little different after we consume cannabis, but no two experiences are the same. A strain may make one person feel incredibly tired, while a different person may feel ready to take on the day. The differences in cannabis experiences are directly related to how cannabis interacts with our endocannabinoid system. This regulatory network is full of complexities we’re only just starting to learn more about.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

You’ve likely seen a model of the nervous system, with little pathways going every which way from the center of our body out to our fingertips. But what if we told you there was an even more intricate network within the nervous system—along with our organs, muscle tissue, and more—that is responsible for anything from temperature regulation to learning and memory? That’s exactly what the endocannabinoid system is.

The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is a complex network of endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes located throughout our body that control a variety of processes integral to not only our comfort but our survival. The ECS is responsible for keeping our bodies in a certain balance, or homeostasis, despite any internal or external factors we encounter. 

What Does the Endocannabinoid System Do?

Now that you know what the endocannabinoid system is, it’s important to know what it does. The ECS actually has some big responsibilities, including the regulation and control of our mood, sleep, heart function, muscle and bone growth, and so much more. If there is a bodily function critical to both our day to day and our survival, chances are good the endocannabinoid system has something to do with it.

And it does all of this moderation with a singular goal in mind—keep our bodies in homeostasis. If something throws you out of sync—a lack of sleep, a slip and twist of the ankle, the sudden need for a 3 PM snack—it’s your endocannabinoid system that activates to try and re-regulate your body, so it can operate at its most efficient levels.

How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?

The endocannabinoid system is made up of three integral parts:

  • Endocannabinoids
  • Endocannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2 mainly)
  • Endocannabinoid Enzymes.

Throughout your entire body, the little receptors in the ECS activate based on different stimuli. The most basic example of this is when you get hot, your ECS fires off to re-regulate your body temperature by sweating or other means. So what activates them? Endocannabinoids. These are our self-made cannabinoids (as opposed to phytocannabinoids, or plant-made cannabinoids, created by the cannabis plant we know and love). When something happens that requires our body’s response, it creates the endocannabinoids that then activate the receptors, which help us to adjust to whatever situation we’re facing. 

So what about the enzymes? The enzymes in the ECS are the clean-up crew. Once our body has created the endocannabinoids, and those little molecules have activated the receptors they need to activate to create the necessary response in our body, it’s time for them to go. Enzymes then come along and break down the endocannabinoids now that they’ve done their job.

Why is the Endocannabinoid System Important?

The endocannabinoid system is our body’s natural way of regulating itself and responding to both internal and external influences. It could be a hot yoga room that causes your body to sweat, or something more serious, like the natural destruction of cancerous cells. Because researchers know the ECS plays such a fundamental role in important functions within our bodies, they hypothesize that we could potentially affect the ECS to cause certain reactions, thereby treating things like chronic pain or even PTSD. The challenge is that we need a lot more research to truly understand the complexities of our endocannabinoid system. Afterall, we’re still discovering additional cannabinoid receptors

Understanding the Endocannabinoid System and CBD

It’s possible that the lay-people who understand the endocannabinoid system better than anyone else are cannabis enthusiasts. That’s because phytocannabinoids (the ones made by marijuana), like endocannabinoids (the ones made by our bodies), can react with the receptors in our body in similar ways and create unique experiences for the consumer.

CBD (cannabidiol) is one of the more than one hundred cannabinoids found in marijuana, and probably the most well-known cannabinoid that isn’t psychoactive. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a really interesting effect on the ECS.

CBD, unlike THC, doesn’t really bind with our endocannabinoid receptors (specifically, CB1 and CB2). Instead, it seems to increase the time our natural cannabinoids are in contact with our cells, causing them to fire off and create an elevated response within our bodies. Additionally, it seems to run interference with the CB1 receptor, almost like dulling its signal. This is why some marijuana consumers insist that strains with CBD tend to create a more moderate experience compared to products high in THC and minimal (if any) CBD. 

Finally, while CBD may not specifically bind to the CB2 receptor, it does seem to amplify the CB2 receptor’s signal. Research indicates CB2 receptors help to regulate things like inflammation and immune responses within the body, so it’s possible CBD could, one day, be a catalyst in the treatment of inflammatory conditions. 

Just remember, we’re a long way off from knowing exactly what CBD can and cannot do in the body, and moreover, how CBD may help in the treatment of different ailments. 

Understanding the Endocannabinoid System and THC

So what happens, then, when you introduce a psychoactive cannabinoid, like THC, to the endocannabinoid system? While CBD doesn’t seem to bind to the receptors in our body, THC becomes good friends with our receptors—specifically CB1. CB1 receptors are more commonly found in our brain among other places. This is likely why THC causes its psychoactive effects, but it’s also why researchers are trying to understand if it could also be an important tool in treating conditions that affect memory, mood, appetite, motor control, and more. 

Like with CBD, we’re a long way from being able to definitively say anything, but just the fact that it affects the endocannabinoid system is worth looking into and understanding better. 

Understanding the Endocannabinoid System and CBN

CBN, cannabinol, is a lesser known cannabinoid created as cannabis ages and the THC within the plant breaks down. This can happen due to time and exposure to heat and light. CBN has some mild psychoactive effects (though this seems to be up for debate), and it also interacts with the ECS receptors in the body. Though, while THC gravitates toward the CB1 receptor, CBN seems to prefer CB2 receptors. This unique interaction of a THC metabolite has led to it being the subject of a number of studies trying to understand if CBN could have therapeutic value in treating certain conditions

Of course, if studies are limited with THC and CBD, you can be sure that we are even less informed about CBN. Much more research needs to be done to understand if CBN actually has any therapeutic properties.

Answering Endocannabinoid System FAQs

There’s a lot of science involved with the endocannabinoid system, and the thing is, we barely understand it even with all the research we have done. So it’s no surprise that we get questions about it. Here are some of our most popular questions and their answers:

Does THC affect the endocannabinoid system?

Yes, THC’s effect on the endocannabinoid system is what creates the psychoactive experience the cannabinoid is known for. 

Does CBD affect the endocannabinoid system?

Yes, CBD affects the endocannabinoid system in three ways: it interferes with signals sent to CB1 receptors, it amplifies signals sent to CB2 receptors, and it may also increase the time our naturally occurring endocannabinoids can interact with cells in our body.

What stimulates the endocannabinoid system?

Taking a cannabreak but still want to fire up your ECS? There’s a number of ways you can do that, including eating foods rich in omega-3 and -6 oils, indulging in chocolate (especially dark chocolate), sipping on certain teas, exercising, and even hanging out with friends. In general, if it helps your body get the nutrients it needs, reduces your stress levels, or just makes you happy, there’s a good chance it’s helping to stimulate—and may even strengthen—your endocannabinoid system.

Create Your Own ECS Experience

One of the fun things about being a cannabis enthusiast is that you can read about things like the endocannabinoid system, and then view our menu, head to one of our locations, pick up your favorite strain, and experience things for yourself. Our budtenders can help you find all different types of cannabis products—with varying levels of THC, CBD, and even CBN—but just remember, go slow and low so as not to overwhelm your ECS.

This content is not intended as medical advice. The information provided is meant to encourage cannabis education, not replace direct patient-healthcare professional relationships. Always consult your primary care physician or other healthcare provider prior to using cannabis products for treatment of a medical condition. Any statements contained herein have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products referenced are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Products are only available where consumption of cannabis is legal.

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