What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

Receptors in the Brain
Photo by: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock

There's a lot that goes into a cannabis-caused high, and it all happens on a biological level. It's much more complicated than "smoke pot, have dazzling effects." From mind-alteration to symptom relief, whether that be physical pain or mental disorders, marijuana affects our bodies due to one system in the body. 

The endocannabinoid system, which interacts with active chemical compounds like THC, is the reason our bodies react to marijuana. However, the endocannabinoid system does more than just expose us to incredible highs; this vital system helps to foster health and well-being for our entire bodies. It serves as a regulating system, and it’s absolutely key to our daily functions. 

Keep reading for a fuller understanding of the endocannabinoid system, including what it is and how it works.  

Balancing Act 

The human endocannabinoid system boils down to maintaining balance. Our bodies are no strangers to balance, otherwise known as homeostasis, one of the core concepts of biology. Homeostasis looks like regulation throughout our bodies (think of regulating temperature as an example). When we're healthy, our internal temp reflects that; when our bodies rise or fall in heat, we are aware of an imbalance within the body. In a healthy state, we aren't too hot or too cold; we're just right. 

The endocannabinoid system is another form of homeostasis within our bodies, but on a molecular level. Its main purpose is to help our body's cells stay balanced, as a form of regulation, so that they can perform the way they are needed. 

Team Players 

Think of the body as a sports team. Just like any successful basketball or softball squad, players have specific roles for their individual positions, though everyone is still working together simultaneously. The endocannabinoid system operates in the same fashion, though instead of having a catcher, pitcher, and first-basemen, it instead has cannabinoid receptorsendocannabinoids, and metabolic enzymes 

Cannabinoid Receptors

Cannabinoid receptors are found on the surface of cells. Essentially, these receptors are like spies, listening to the conditions outside of the cell. Cannabinoid receptors are specifically listening for information about changing conditions. They take intel, then report and transmit these changes to the inside of the cell, which initiates the cellular response. 

There are two essential kinds of cannabinoid receptors, which have been well-studied and documented: CB1 and CB2. CB1, which the brain has the most of, are the ones most relevant to cannabis. CB1 receptors interact with THC, which leads to the high. CB2 receptors mostly exist in other areas besides the nervous system, though both can be found all over cells throughout the entire body. 

Endocannabinoids

Brain with Cannabis Leaves
Photo by: FCG/Shutterstock
Endocannabinoids are small molecules that activate cannabinoid receptors. If you're familiar with cannabis, this is likely a term you've heard before. Human endocannabinoids, similar to the cannabinoid known as THC found in plants, bind to cannabinoid receptors. This binding then activates the receptors.  

The main difference between endocannabinoids and cannabinoids can be identified within the words themselves; "endo," which means "within," hints that endocannabinoids are found within the human body. Both of them, however, can activate the CB1 and CB2 receptors, though each will have a different potency. 

Usually, biological molecules can be packaged and stored to be used later. When it comes to the two major endocannabinoids, called anandamide and 2-AG, they can be synthesized at any time. These team players don't waste space; they can be created and used whenever they’re needed, simultaneously.  

Metabolic Enzymes

Metabolic enzymes break down the endocannabinoids after they are used. They’re like Pac-Man, destroying the endocannabinoids as soon as they are set loose. 

There are two main enzymes, including FAAH and MAGL. FAAH breaks down anandamide, while MAGL breaks down 2-AG, working together to completely destroy their endocannabinoid sandwich. The main purpose of these metabolic enzymes is to ensure that endocannabinoids don't take up space within the body for longer than they are needed. While they are great at knocking out endocannabinoids very quickly, they take a longer time to obliterate foreign cannabinoids, such as the plant-based THC.  

All Over the Place 

The three team players in the endocannabinoid system exist throughout the entire body, in nearly every system, aiming to maintain body-wide homeostasis. We see the endocannabinoid doing its job in several important functions that we do on a daily basis, over and over again. 

While the basic function of the team players remains the same, the endocannabinoid system does different things in different areas. As we know, CB1 receptors are found mostly in the brain's nervous system, while CB2 receptors find their way throughout the gastrointestinal tract, on immune cells, and in the peripheral nervous system, among others.  

The team players help to regulate the following: sleep, mood, appetite, hunger, digestion, reproduction, fertility, immune function, motor control, pleasure and reward, memory, temperature regulation, and pain. When the endocannabinoid system is obstructed, any of these important functions can fall out of balance, which can lead to major issues. 

There's even an endocannabinoid system theory of disease, known as "Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency." To summarize, this diagnosis entails that when the body doesn't regulate or produce enough endocannabinoids, it is then more susceptible to illnesses that affect the major functions listed above. 

Non-psychoactive CBD 

THC, as previously discussed, is a cannabinoid that binds with the cannabinoid receptors in our body. CBD, however, does not. Instead, this non-psychoactive agent works with the FAAH metabolic enzyme.  

As you know, usually this enzyme breaks down anandamide, putting a stop to it altogether. CBD stops this from happening. Instead, CBD increases the amount of endocannabinoids in the body rather than limiting it, which leads to more use of anandamide within your cells. Thus, the result from CBD is a natural mood-lifter. 

Cannabis is clearly and scientifically connected to the body and, more specifically, the endocannabinoid system. This CBD-FAAH-anandamide connection lends a heavy hand to why marijuana seems to heal a very lengthy list of ailments that seem to have no connection. Rather, they are all correlated via the endocannabinoid system.  

It's all connected. The system, our body's great team player, impacts our lives in all sorts of ways, from regular functions to mood to even cannabis consumption.  As we learn more about it, we continue to gain a greater appreciation for both the marvels of marijuana and our own bodies.