What Is the Endocannabinoid System? The Beginner's Guide

What is the Endocannabinoid System

You may have heard of CBD and THC, the two primary cannabinoids that provide a range of health benefits. But did you know that your body has an internal system specifically to interact with these and all other cannabinoids? 

It’s called the endocannabinoid system and it plays a crucial role in your health, including facilitating the effects of cannabinoids like THC and CBD.

The Endocannabinoid System 

The endocannabinoid system is a complex network within your body, made of receptors and neurons. 

Sometimes referred to as the ECS, it was only recently discovered so there is much still to be learnt about its role in the body. While you might instinctively think the ECS relates only to how the body interacts with cannabinoids from cannabis, this isn’t the case. It plays a daily active role in our health, regardless of whether or not you’ve consumed cannabis.

For example, researchers have established that the ECS is critical in regulating various bodily processes such as fertility, mood, sleep, and cognitive functioning. It does so by working with compounds the body produces naturally, such as enzymes and endocannabinoids.


Endocannabinoids are one of the key components at the heart of how the ECS works. 

Cannabinoids from the cannabis plant are technically called phytocannabinoids, denoting that they are plant-derived. Endocannabinoids are similar, but the prefix ‘endo’ means that your body produces them naturally. When needed, your body will produce endocannabinoids at different levels to regulate things like your mood or body temperature. As you can see, this is very important for day to day well-being.


Another component of the endocannabinoid system are the receptors. These exist throughout the body, enabling cannabinoids to bind to them. When a cannabinoid binds to a receptor, it signals an effect or reaction that you may then experience. An everyday example of this is your endocannabinoid system working to treat muscle inflammation. 

There are two main types of receptors: CB1 and CB2 receptors. You may be familiar with these due to their interactions with well-known phytocannabinoids. 

The main difference between these two receptors is that CB1 receptors are typically found in the brain and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are usually located in the peripheral organs. 

Cannabinoids bind to these receptors to cause specific effects on the body. The type of cannabinoid, receptor and the location of the receptor will determine the specific impact experienced by your body. 

So What Does the Endocannabinoid System Actually Do?

Since the ECS  is a relatively recent scientific discovery, we have a lot more to research about its role in our bodies.

But some research has been done so scientists are not totally in the dark. Current research indicates that the system may help the body’s management of the following conditions and functions:

It is evident that the ECS is key to healthy functioning and may also help to protect from disease. Its core function appears to be maintaining homeostasis - essentially, a stable internal environment.

CBD and the Endocannabinoid System 

So since CBD is a cannabinoid, how does CBD oil work within the ECS? The answer is complicated because unlike most other cannabinoids, CBD doesn’t bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors. 

Once consumed, CBD appears to interact with the enzymes of the endocannabinoids system more than anything.. There is a hypothesis that CBD may prevent endocannabinoids from being broken down by enzymes, allowing them to induce their effects at higher or longer levels. 

We also know that CBD can interact with the CB1 receptor, increasing its density and effectively blocking THC from binding with it. This is why consuming CBD can reduce the effects of THC in the body.

While we know a little already, until further research is done the exact mechanics of CBD in the ECS are still not well understood.

Endocannabinoid Deficiency

There is a theory that some people may have an endocannabinoid deficiency. The endocannabinoid deficiency theory proposes that low endocannabinoid levels lead to the development of conditions that others have unexplained origins such as migraines, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome. 

One study investigated this theory, finding that migraine, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome show common symptoms and so could have similar underlying causes for their development.  Significantly low endocannabinoid levels were found in the cerebrospinal fluid of patients with migraines, suggesting that the endocannabinoid system may play a role in migraine management. However, not enough proof was found to conclude this theory as definitively correct.

This idea needs much more research before it can be proven. Still, it could provide an interesting explanation for conditions with no currently known underlying causes that are difficult to manage. 

The Bottom Line 

The endocannabinoid system is a complicated and important network found throughout your body, and is active regardless of whether or not you consume cannabis or cannabinoids. 

The ECS helps to maintain your body’s balance and function and has also been found to play an important role in providing protection from disease.  

While more research is needed to understand the ECS and all that it does, it’s clear that it is crucially important in keeping you healthy from day to day.