How Does The Endocannabinoid System Work? Learn What Makes Cannabis “Click”

A person wearing a gray tank top stretches as part of a wellness routine.

If you’ve ever wondered how cannabis works, the answer is all about the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS). Known as the endocannabinoid system for short — well, sort of short — this incredible and complex network is responsible for a whole host of important functions in your body. Take a tour of the ECS with us to learn more about how this system works and what cannabis has to do with it.

What is the endocannabinoid system and how does it work?

The endocannabinoid system is a network of receptors, chemicals produced by your body, and enzymes that work together to regulate your mood, appetite, metabolism, immune system, and so much more. 

The ECS is also the reason cannabis influences us the way it does. That’s because the phytocannabinoids found in cannabis plants are compatible with your ECS, and phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD behave similarly to the chemicals, called endocannabinoids, that your body produces and that work with your ECS.

What are the parts of the endocannabinoid system?

The ECS can be broken down into three broad components: cannabinoid receptors, endogenous cannabinoids, and enzymes.

  • Cannabinoid receptors: The ECS is made up of cannabinoid receptors. The two known and most-studied ones are the CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors. The CB1 receptors are primarily found in your central nervous system and the spinal cord and are often linked to pain, inflammation, appetite, and memory. The CB2 receptors are primarily found in your immune system and influence pain, inflammation, and metabolism.

  • Endogenous cannabinoids: The endogenous cannabinoids (the long version of “endocannabinoids”) are chemicals produced in our bodies that work with the cannabinoid receptors to, in turn, help the ECS to regulate the many functions it’s responsible for influencing. The two most well-known endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Anandamide, AKA the “bliss molecule,” activates the CB1 receptor and is closely linked to the brain’s reward system and the neurotransmitter dopamine. 2-AG activates both types of cannabinoid receptors and is thought to influence pain, inflammation, stress, cognition and appetite.

  • Enzymes: The enzymes within the ECS are essential in the production of endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG. These include the enzymes known as fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), monoacylglyceride lipase (MAG), and N-acylphosphatidylethanolamine hydrolase phospholipase D (NAPE-PLD). These enzymes break down endocannabinoids once they’ve served their purpose, and recycle their constituent parts for future use as needed by the ECS. 

It’s worth noting that the ECS is not just found in humans. All mammals and most vertebrates have an endocannabinoid system, too. That’s why CBD for pets exists!

Endocannabinoid production

Endocannabinoid production begins in a variety of organs, thanks to the enzymes of the ECS which can synthesize compounds like anandamide and 2-AG. This endocannabinoid production occurs as your body needs it to regulate the functions of these organs and keep the body in a state of homeostasis. This is because the ECS is a sprawling system that exists throughout the brain and body, including in these organs.

Take the ECS’s role in appetite regulation as an example. The ECS plays an important role when we need to eat through the production of endocannabinoids and their interaction with cannabinoid receptors in both the gut and brain. As a result of this signaling, we have feelings of hunger, as well as the motivation to seek out food. When we eat, the ECS influences the release of dopamine, which triggers our brain’s reward system.

What does the ECS do in your body?

The ECS is responsible for a wide range of important functions throughout your body. These include:

  • Metabolic function
  • Immune system function
  • Pain perception
  • Cognition, learning, and memory
  • Sleep cycle function
  • Stress, anxiety, and fear
  • Appetite and digestion
  • Organ function
  • Skin health
  • Central nervous system function
  • Peripheral nervous system function
  • Reproductive health

The ECS is such a widespread system that it influences this entire list and more, directly or indirectly. As a result, a well-balanced and healthy endocannabinoid system is essential to good health and wellness. Researchers are continually learning more about the ECS and how cannabis might supplement endocannabinoids in keeping your body balanced and running smoothly.

What does cannabis have to do with the ECS?

The similarities between endogenous cannabinoids and plant-based cannabinoids found in cannabis means these compounds can also influence the ECS. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), for example, activates the CB1 receptor to cause its intoxicating effects and other properties, including pain alleviation. In keeping with the appetite example above, it’s also the reason cannabis may sometimes cause “the munchies” and lead to some serious snacking.

THC isn’t the only compound that influences the ECS, either. Other cannabinoids like Cannabidiol (CBD), Cannabigerol (CBG), and Cannabinol (CBN) influence the system too, to name a few. Even terpenes, the aromatic compounds that give cannabis its smell and taste, can get in on the action and influence your experience. 

The entourage effect and the ECS

Precisely how phytocannabinoids and terpenes make you feel can change depending on which are present together and in what proportions, too. That’s what researchers call “the entourage effect,” and it makes it important to understand the complete cannabinoid and terpene profiles of the cannabis products you choose.

For example, a high-THC cannabis product with low levels of CBD may result in a very different experience than a cannabis product with equal amounts of THC and CBD. Similarly, a product that contains a myrcene-dominant terpene profile is likely to produce different effects than one with a limonene-dominant terpene profile, even if the levels of phytocannabinoids remain the same. Different strains and cannabis products, then, can have a wide range of different effects. That’s what makes cannabis so suitable for such a wide range of people, who all love cannabis for different reasons!

Want to better understand the difference between cannabinoids and terpenes? Check out the Queen City guide on cannabinoids vs. terpenes to learn more.

Does CBD balance the endocannabinoid system?

CBD is a unique case in that it doesn’t bind to cannabinoid receptors like THC and other cannabinoids do. Instead, it influences the ECS indirectly. Researchers believe that CBD prevents endocannabinoids from degrading, keeping them around for longer. Some have even suggested there is another, yet undiscovered cannabinoid receptor that CBD influences. 

Either way, researchers have observed that CBD is effective for pain management and alleviating nausea and vomiting, among other effects. It has also been used as the primary ingredient in Epidiolex™, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved anti-convulsant pharmaceutical drug designed to treat seizures in patients with Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome and Dravet Syndrome.

Notable studies on the endocannabinoid system

Researchers are continuously examining the ECS and how cannabis works alongside it to find new ways it can benefit us. Here are some major studies and clinical reviews that have shed light on just that:

  • Cannabis, the ECS, and the Central Nervous System: This study examines how cannabinoids and the ECS influence the CNS and what the therapeutic potential may be for cannabis as a result.

  • Cannabis, urology, and the ECS: This review examines clinical evidence regarding cannabis and the ECS in relation to urology and reproductive health, as well as touches on its role in emotional regulation and men’s health.

  • Cannabis consumption and the ECS: This review takes a look at clinical data regarding the ECS and cannabis consumption patterns, including over-consumption and use disorders.

  • Pain and the ECS: This review of preclinical studies examines the role of the ECS in pain management and how cannabinoids may play a therapeutic role.

  • Anxiety and the ECS: This review examines evidence of how the ECS influences feelings of stress and anxiety, as well as the therapeutic potential that cannabinoids — and CBD in particular — may offer.

Find the best cannabis product for your goals

You don’t need to be an ECS expert to pick the right cannabis product. When you shop at Queen City in Plainfield, NJ, you’ll have access to our expert budtenders who are always ready to help walk you through our inventory and find a great product to meet your needs. 

Every cannabis consumer is unique, and we know firsthand what it’s like to search high and low for the product that best suits you. We’ll take the stress and guesswork out of your buying journey and ensure you go home with something that makes you truly happy. Shop our menu now to see what we have in store!



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