The endocannabinoid system is something that exists in all vertebrates (that includes us humans) and can be found all throughout the body. While the ECS was first studied in the 1960’s and 70’s, it evolved in humans around 600 million years ago.

The day-to-day job of the ECS is to keep the body in homeostasis. It’s thought to help regulate appetite, memory, mood, sleep, stress, pain, reproduction, and more. While scientists still have a lot to learn, the endocannabinoid system is also how we are able to experience the effects of cannabinoids like THC and CBD.

The endocannabinoid system is made up of 3 main elements.

  1. Endocannabinoids and Phytocannabinoids (small molecules that activate cannabinoid receptors)
  2. Cannabinoid receptors (found on the surface of cells)
  3. Metabolic enzymes (break down endocannabinoids after they are used)

Endocannabinoids and Phytocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids (“endo” meaning “originating inside of the body”) are produced naturally by the body and are small molecules that bind to and activate cannabinoid receptors. There are two main endocannabinoids – anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).

  • Anadamide – from the Sanskrit word “Ananda”, or “bliss.” This molecule operates throughout the endocannabinoid system and is thought to influence appetite, memory, pregnancy, and more. It’s even been identified as the source of the “runner’s high” experienced during or after intense exercise.
  • 2-AG – has been linked to our emotional states, protection from seizures, and maintaining cardiovascular health.

Phytocannabinoids  (“phyto” meaning plant) are the cannabinoids found in cannabis. There are more than 100 different phytocannabinoids that we know of so far — including THC, THCa, THCv, CBD, CBDa, CBN, CBG, etc — and each one can have slightly different interactions with the CB receptors throughout your body, resulting in different affects you may feel.

Cannabinoid receptors

The two best understood (and most studied) cannabinoid receptors are CB1 and CB2.

CB1 receptors are the most abundant receptor type in the brain and these are the receptors that THC binds with, causing the effects of being high.

CB2 are more common outside the nervous system and most often found on the cells of our immune system. They help moderate inflammation and our immune response to pathogens.

Most cannabinoids (endo and phyto) can bind to both receptors. CBD is an exception. CBD doesn’t directly bind to either type of receptor but it does affect other cannabinoids ability to bind to those receptors. So, the effects you feel from CBD are caused by its influence on the ability of your CB receptors to bind to other cannabinoids. CBD helps balance out the psychoactive effects of THC by influencing how THC and other cannabinoids bind with your CB receptors after you’ve ingested cannabis products.

Metabolic enzymes

Metabolic enzymes help control the effects of the endocannabinoids. They breakdown the endocannabinoids after they’ve been used. These enzymes help serve as an off switch for the endocannabinoids. Mirroring the endocannabinoids, there are two main metabolic enzymes – FAAH, which breaks down anandamide, and MAGL, which breaks down 2-AG.

There are no known metabolic enzymes that work on THC or CBD. This is partly why the effects can last so long.

There is still a lot to learn about our ECS and how marijuana interacts with and influences our body. In the meantime, check out this in-depth article on the ECS from Leafly.

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