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The endocannabinoid biological system is found in humans and other mammals. The system consists of neurotransmitters known as endocannabinoids, as well as protein receptors that interact with cannabinoid chemical compounds found in cannabis plants and enzymes that break down these compounds. The most commonly known cannabinoids from cannabis include cannabidiol (CBD), which is used in CBD oil products; and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which produces the psychoactive high most commonly associated with marijuana use.
The endocannabinoid system is very complex, and helps regulate a wide range of cognitive and physiological processes. These include mood, appetite, sleep, and pain, as well as various processes linked to fertility and pregnancy. For this reason, the endocannabinoid is crucial to homeostasis – or bodily equilibrium – in humans.
This guide will discuss how the endocannabinoid system works, discuss its most important components and functions, and dive into the relationship between the system and cannabinoids like CBD and THC.
The endocannabinoid system was first defined in the late 1980s, following decades of research into the effects of THC and other cannabinoids on the human body. The system has been extensively studied in the three decades that followed, though much is still unknown about endocannabinoids.
Scientists have identified three key components to the endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids are lipid-based neurotransmitters that bond with and activate cannabinoid receptors, much like cannabinoids like THC and CBD that come from other sources. The term ‘endocannabinoid’ loosely translates to ‘cannabis produced inside the body.’ The most common endocannabinoids are anandamides and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), the latter being more prevalent in the central nervous system.
Cannabinoid receptors are G-protein coupled receptors, which means they are designed to detect and interact with molecules found outside the body. Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body. Two types of receptors have been officially identified. CB1 receptors primarily live in the brain and central nervous system but have been detected in other areas of the body, such as the kidneys, liver, and lungs. CB2 receptors are commonly found in the peripheral nervous system and peripheral organs such as the spleen, as well as the digestive system immune systems. Additionally, some researchers have speculated that other receptor types have yet to be identified.
Lastly, the endocannabinoid system also includes the enzymes that synthesize and break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids after they have served their purpose.
As we mentioned earlier, the endocannabinoid system plays an important role in homeostasis. Homeostasis is essentially a state of physiological and cognitive equilibrium that indicates all bodily processes are balanced and functioning properly. When one or more of these processes is not at equilibrium, the endocannabinoid system and other systems help regulate the body until balanced levels are reached.
As a result, the endocannabinoid system helps regulate a wide range of cognitive and physiological processes tied to homeostasis. These include:
The endocannabinoid system provides targeted regulation of these processes, meaning that it may regulate one without affecting the others. This allows the body to reach homeostasis more quickly. After endocannabinoids and cannabinoids have restored homeostasis by interacting with receptors, enzymes synthesize and degrade the molecules; this prevents endocannabinoids and cannabinoids from impacting processes that do not need to be regulated.
Now that we’ve discussed the parts and functions of the endocannabinoid system, let’s look at what happens when cannabinoids like THC and CBD enter the body.
Smoking marijuana introduces the THC cannabinoid to the body, where it attaches to and interacts with a receptor. An endocannabinoid (either an anandamide or 2-AG) simultaneously binds to the same receptor. The result is a psychoactive high from the THC combined with a calming sensation from the endocannabinoid.
Enzymes eventually synthesize the endocannabinoid, causing it to disintegrate, but the enzymes cannot synthesize THC in the same manner. For this reason, the high from THC outlasts the calming effects of the endocannabinoid.
CBD bonds to cannabinoid receptors like THC, but it interacts differently with the human body. For one, CBD does not produce a psychoactive high in consumers; rather, it creates a calming effect similar to that of endocannabinoids. The CBD cannabinoid also prevents enzymes from synthesizing the endocannabinoid attached to the same receptor, resulting in more prolonged feelings of relaxation.
It’s important to note that different products with THC and/or CBD result in different interactions with the body. For example, edible capsules and tinctures with CBD are ingested orally and directly enter the bloodstream. As cannabinoids bond with receptors (along with their endocannabinoid counterparts), consumers of edibles and tinctures experience calming sensations throughout their body at a relatively fast rate. On the other hand, lotions, salves, and other topicals with CBD and/or THC are applied to the outer layer of skin known as the epidermis. The epidermis has cannabinoid receptors that interact with the CBD cannabinoids in the topical, but endocannabinoids do not come into play because the substance never enters the bloodstream. As a result, the calming and soothing sensations of CBD/THC topicals are isolated to the application area and will not spread throughout the body.
The production, sale, and recreational use of products containing THC remain restricted in most states. The same limitations do not apply to CBD because it is primarily derived from hemp, a member of the cannabis family that was decriminalized at the federal level in 2018. All 50 states now permit the production, sale, purchase, and use of hemp-based products such as CBD, provided they contain little to no THC; 0.3% is the maximum amount of THC that is legally allowed in CBD products sold nationwide, but many CBD products do not contain any THC whatsoever.
Because CBD works with the endocannabinoid system to promote homeostasis without producing a psychoactive high, it may alleviate symptoms associated with a wide range of conditions. These include:
When used as a topical, CBD can also alleviate joint and muscle inflammation and reduce pains associated with burns, insect stings, and other injury sites.