Even if you’re a lifelong cannabis enthusiast, you might not realize that there’s an entire system within your body designed to work synergistically with the plant.
Called the endocannabinoid system, or ECS for short, this system is responsible for regulating and producing a variety of responses within the nervous system. It operates even without being exposed to the cannabinoids found in marijuana. Let’s take a closer look at the mysteries of the endocannabinoid system—what it is, how it works, and how cannabis interacts with our bodies.
Big picture first: let’s explain the general function of the endocannabinoid system, starting with a bit of history.
It all goes back to 1988 when researchers found that the human body contains a (then) unnamed receptor system – a master regulator, helping us function normally throughout the day.
So what does the endocannabinoid system do? Why do we have cannabinoid receptors, anyway?
The endocannabinoid system produces a mind+body connection, regulating blood sugar, immune response, metabolism, pain, your chemical “reward” system, and more. And it does this via cannabinoid receptors that interact with cannabis compounds.
There are three components of the endocannabinoid system that regulate its functions. These are:
Cannabinoid receptors are the places endocannabinoids bind when your body wants to kick the ECS into action. There are two main types of receptors:
While endocannabinoids can bind with equal effectiveness to either type of receptor, the results they produce depend both on where the receptor is within your body, as well as the specific kind of endocannabinoid to which it binds.
Found throughout your body, endocannabinoid receptors have higher concentrations in particular areas depending on their type. CB1 receptors are mostly found within nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord, while CB2 receptors are at their highest concentration in your body’s white blood cells, tonsils, and spleen.
But where are cannabinoid receptors located? Are there cannabinoid receptors in the brain?We know it’s confusing, but THC receptors don’t exist. So when people refer to cannabis receptors, they’re probably referring to the natural interaction between the endocannabinoid system and cannabis.
Cannabinoids like THC, CBD, and others, bind to your CB1 and CB2 receptors, producing the elevated experience commonly associated with cannabis.
While it’s challenging to study precisely how cannabis interacts with these various receptors since federal prohibition still limits research, researchers have uncovered a lot in recent years.
Experts aren’t precisely sure how this interaction works, but most believe it helps our bodies’ natural endocannabinoids stay in the system longer, producing a natural “high.” Others think there might be a separate set of CBD receptors that we simply haven’t discovered yet.
Last but not least, let’s look at the differences between endocannabinoids and cannabinoids.
Cannabinoids are any active compounds found in cannabis that bind to receptors within the endocannabinoid system. This includes THC and CBD and many of the lesser-known (often called “minor”) cannabinoids, like THCA, CBDA, Delta 8 THC, CBG, and CBT.
Well, sort of. It’s more accurate to say that cannabinoids replicate something the human body is already doing naturally, for fun and functionality.
Endocannabinoids are the chemical messengers of the ECS. Our brains rely on these messages to send information to the receptors throughout the body, helping ease pain, produce pleasure, and regulate the normal function of physical systems.
Last but not least, let’s talk about endocannabinoid deficiency.
While it’s a theory at this point, some experts believe that low endocannabinoid levels in our body or other forms of endocannabinoid tomfoolery and disconnection contribute to the development of certain conditions with hazy underlying causes.
Conditions that may result from endocannabinoid deficiency include IBS, migraines, and fibromyalgia. Experts believe these conditions may be linked, as they don’t have a clear cause, sometimes co-occur, and are notoriously resistant to treatment.
While we don’t know for sure that these conditions are linked to deficiencies in the ECS, some studies show that these conditions respond positively to cannabis.
Whether you have an existing medical concern or are merely interested in the relationship between cannabis and your body, understanding the endocannabinoid system is a fascinating place to start!