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The Basics of the Endocannabinoid System

Posted by Janna Champagne,RN on

The endocannabinoid system acts like a giant computer that directs the 11 body systems to maintain optimal health, at all times. All animals, except for insects, have an endocannabinoid system. The main function of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is a just right state of balance in the body. An example of homeostasis is the constant “surveillance” or looking for potential infections or imbalances in your body performed by your immune system. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for providing neuroprotection and guiding your immune system.1 Everyone has a unique and very different endocannabinoid System, much like a fingerprint. Your endocannabinoid system can change over time with age, hormonal changes, pregnancy and childbirth, illness, cancer, and trauma.

There are several moving parts to the endocannabinoid system. The 4 main parts of the endocannabinoid system are the nervous and immune systems, CB 1 and CB 2 receptors, endocannabinoids, and enzymes that breakdown the endocannabinoids. Let’s take a closer look at those moving parts.

CB 1 receptors are located primarily in the brain and throughout the central nervous system. CB 2 Receptors are located primarily on immune organs such as the thymus and spleen and in the lymph system as well as immune cells. The skin and reproductive organs have CB 2 receptors. There are areas in your body that have a mix of CB 1 and CB 2 receptors, such as the liver. CB 2 receptors are located mostly in the immune tissues of the body and may play a role in controlling the immune system through controlling inflammation throughout the body.2 CB 1 and CB 2 receptors are the most abundant receptor type in your body. They are 10 times more concentrated than opioid receptors in the brain. CB 1 and CB 2 receptors begin developing in a human fetus at 14 weeks gestation.

Endocannabinoids bind to CB 1 and CB 2 receptors to achieve homeostasis. They are made from the essential fatty acids, omega 3’s and omega 6’s, from the food you consume on a daily basis. Endocannabinoids are made on demand to achieve homeostasis and are then broken down and deactivated by enzymes. They are messengers that act as neurotransmitters. They tell the endocannabinoid receptors what to do. There are many endocannabinoids. The two main endocannabinoids that do most of the work within the endocannabinoid system are Anandamide (AEA) and Archachidonoyl glycerol (2AG).3

Anandamide produces a state of relaxation and bliss. Anandamide is responsible for controlling memory, movement control, motivation, and higher thought processes. It plays an important role in regulating pain, appetite, and fertility. Anandamide controls the spread of cancer throughout your body and increases neurogenesis, the formation of new nerve cells. It is most abundant in the body when you are resting and sleeping. 2AG regulates appetite and the immune system, pain management, mood stability, metabolism, bone health, reproductive health, and sleep quality. 2 AG is more abundant than Anandamide in the body and is most active in the body during waking hours.

The endocannabinoid system is so large and vital that almost every cell in the body expresses endocannabinoid receptors. The system is a vital bridge between the body and mind, and endocannabinoids like Anandamide are the messengers that keep the system running smoothly. Anandamide and 2 AG bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Imagine a CB1 or CB2 receptor acting as a docking station. The endocannabinoids act as minicomputers. Once the endocannabinoids dock, they turn into neurotransmitters once inside the cell. Once they become a neurotransmitter, healing and homeostasis occur.

When homeostasis needs to occur, endocannabinoids are released from postsynaptic neurons and travel backward across synapses, and attach and activate a CB1 or CB2 receptor on presynaptic axons. The same action takes place between immune cells. This is what is known as a retrograde messenger system. The endocannabinoids are essentially retrograde synaptic messengers. Once homeostasis is achieved, the endocannabinoids are metabolized by enzymes and are no longer active.4 Your body can heal itself, as long as it has a healthy endocannabinoid system.

Hemp is in the family of plant species called Cannabis. There are 4 main types of Cannabis: Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, Cannabis Ruderalis, and Cannabis Sativa L. Cannabis Sativa L is Hemp. Hemp contains very low amounts of Delta-9-THC, specifically less than o.3 % of THC. THC causes the high feeling, or euphoria, caused by consuming Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, or types of Cannabis Ruderalis blends. Hemp contains high amounts of  Cannabidiol, or CBD, and low amounts of THC. CBD does not cause you to feel high.

Cannabis, including hemp, affects a human’s pain, memory, and cognition through retrograde messengers. The endocannabinoid systems’ design matches phytocannabinoids, found in the cannabis plant. Examples of phytocannabinoids are THC and CBD. THC and CBD are the most studied phytocannabinoids of the cannabis plant. Around 144 different phytocannabinoids have been isolated from the cannabis plant. THC can bind to the CB 1 receptor to achieve homeostasis. CBD cannot bind to the CB 1 or CB 2 receptor. CBD prevents Anandamide from breaking down, and becoming inactive, by blocking the enzyme FAAH. FAAH breaks down Anandamide. As a result, your body will have more Anandamide available for a period of time to create more homeostasis.

Sometimes, a person does not create enough endocannabinoids from their diet or does not create enough CB 1 or CB 2 receptors necessary to achieve constant homeostasis. This sets the body up for several disease states such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Migraines, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Parkinson’s Disease, Depression, Anorexia Nervosa, and Diabetic Neuropathy. This is what is known as Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome.5 Supplementation with different types of cannabis medicine, in particular, CBD, can help to correct imbalances within different types of endocannabinoid deficiency syndromes. In 2017, the World Health Organization stated that CBD is safe to use and is not considered a health risk.7

With the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, and the removal of hemp from the Controlled Substances Act,6 the research on CBD will be wide open in the United States. We are witnessing a paradigm changing time in history.



  1. I. Lara-Celador, Et al. Using the Endocannabinoid System as a neuroprotective strategy in perinatal hypoxic-ischemic brain injury. Neural Regen Res. 2013 Mar 15; 8(8): 731-744.
  2. Caroline Turcotte. The CB2 receptor and its role as a regulator of inflammation. Cell Mol Life Sci J. 2016; 73(23)4449–4470.
  3. Luchicchi A1, Pistis M. Anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol: pharmacological properties, functional features, and emerging specificities of the two major endocannabinoids. Mol Neurobiol J. 2012 Oct;46(2):374-92.
  4. Patricia H. Reggio. Endocannabinoid binding to the cannabinoid receptors: What is known and what remains unknown. Curr Med Chem J. 2010; 17(14): 1468–1486.
  5. Smith SCWagner MS. Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) revisited: can this concept explain the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment-resistant conditions? Neuro Endocrinology Letter. 2014;35(3):198-201.

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