Endocannabinoid System: Everything You Need To Know

What is the endocannabinoid system? We have gathered everything you need to know about this fascinated system, and how it works.

We understand how cannabis affects our body by way of individual experiences. Many people, however, still don’t know the science behind why cannabis affects us the way it does. There is hundreds of scientists discovering new anomalies about the plant all stemming around one system we discovered just thirty years ago: the endocannabinoid system.

CB1 Receptors

In the late 1960s the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) delved into further research into how cannabis affects the body. A short time later, Johns Hopkins University, a privately funded institution, identified receptor sites (now known as CB1 receptors) that activated upon cannabis consumption. Though cannabis was still illegal at the time, this was more or less under wraps and hid behind the term “scientific research.” When the government found out what Johns Hopkins was doing, they decided to further the research through St. Louis University School of Medicine, a government funded university. Fifteen years later, they confirmed the discovery of receptors found in the brain. Allyn Howlett and William Devane were the two leading scientists who found that CB1 receptors were far more abundant in the brain than any other neurotransmitter receptor. The receptors were mostly found in regions of the brain responsible for memory (the hippocampus), higher cognition (the cerebral cortex), motor coordination (the cerebellum), movement (basal ganglia), appetite (hypothalamus), emotions (amygdala) and other significant areas.

CB1 is the main receptor responsible for producing a high caused by THC intake, the main psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana. Because high amounts of CB1 receptors are concentrated in the brain, it is more susceptible by psychotropic suggestion, which is why creativity, memory and other cerebral cognition is affected.

CB2 Receptors

The discovery of a second receptor, called CB2 receptors, was brought to light not long after. The identified CB2 receptors were found to be more prevalent throughout the immune system and peripheral nervous system. CB2 receptors are found in the gut, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells, endocrine glands and reproductive organs.

After discovering the two receptors, scientists traced pathways made by CB1 and CB2 and found a unique and formerly unknown molecular signaling system similar to the central nervous system. It helped with the normal regulation of a wide array of biological functions within the body. They deemed it “the endocannabinoid system” named after the plant that had so many hidden secrets


The actual cannabinoids in cannabis are called phytocannabinoids. These phytocannabinoids bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors so it is no surprise that cannabis can produce similar effects and body responses. Differences in shapes and chemistry between the endocannabinoid and phytocannabinoid molecules can produce different responses. The responses can also depend on the mixtures of cannabinoids available from a specific cannabis plant, called its profile, as well as how they are delivered to the body.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the best known cannabinoid present in cannabis and is the component that produces most of the “high” you feel when consumed. Other significant phytocannabinoids are CBD, CBN, CBC and CBG. Each of these can produce different effects on the body and in combination, can either strengthen or reduce the effects of other cannabinoids.


CBD is the second most common cannabinoid. By itself, it is completely non psychoactive and has a strong connection with CB2 receptors. CBD is mainly used for treating body aches and pains and is in the advanced stages of treating seizures.

Just as THC interacts with CB1 receptors found in the brain, CBD mostly interacts with CB2 receptors. This isn’t to say the effects aren’t interchangeable. For example, indica has strong percentages of THC and CBD and while it affects the mind, it also gives the body a calming sensation. This suggests that indica reacts more with CB2 receptors and the internal organs rather than strictly focusing on CB1 receptors for the psychoactive effects, much like sativa does.

Cannabis in Animals

Cannabinoid receptors are found in many different animals, including mice, fish and leeches. The human body naturally produces its own chemicals that also link with these receptors. These endocannabinoids are produced from a common cellular component called arachidonic acid and play a role in many basic bodily functions. These include memory, appetite, metabolism, stress response, immune response, pain sensation, body temperature regulation and sleep.

The Endocannabinoid System: Forward Thinking

The range of the body’s responses to each of these cannabinoids and how they affect each other in combination is only beginning to be understood. Prior to the 1960s, we had only understood cannabis to a drug that altered the mind and a plant that had been around for millions of years. Within a span of only a few decades, we have discovered an unfathomable amount about marijuana. How long before the government finally rules cannabis as a beneficial plant? Or, more factually, a scientific anomaly that has the potential for eradicating disease?

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Written on 13 June, 2017 by
Audrey Livingston
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