Before we dig into the endocannabinoid system, let’s take a step outside.
You take a deep, cleansing breath of fresh air. The sunshine feels warm on your skin, and a bright pop of yellow catches your eye. It’s a daisy, petals open to the sun. A bumblebee drops onto the center of the flower, gathers pollen and nectar, and lazily buzzes over to another flower, and another, before drifting back to its hive.
You’ve just witnessed a slice of Mother Nature’s ecosystem. The flowers feed the bees, and the bees pollinate the flowers, and the plants produce oxygen and leave us with clean, fresh air. Everything works in perfect harmony.
Your endocannabinoid system works in much the same way. It buzzes along in the background, keeping your body in balance. Here’s how it works, why it’s so important, and what you can do to support it.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
You have an immune system. You have a cardiovascular system. You also have an endocannabinoid system. It works alongside the rest of the systems in your body and helps everything function the way it should.
Think of it this way: Without bees, we wouldn’t have as many diverse plants. Without those plants, natural habitats and food webs would be thrown out of balance. Ecosystems help all those parts interact smoothly.
Your endocannabinoid system has the same job. Without an endocannabinoid system, your immune system might attack healthy cells, your nervous system wouldn’t work the same way, and you wouldn’t feel like YOU.
Where Is It?
Even if you've never used cannabis, you have an endocannabinoid system. It's a system in your body, just like your digestive system and nervous system. Endocannabinoid receptors are mostly found in the brain and the immune system. They're the things that signal to your endocannabinoid system that it's time to act.
The endocannabinoid system is a relatively new discovery, and a lot of what we know is based on early studies. Keep reading to see what the research shows about how it works.
How the Endocannabinoid System Works
The endocannabinoid system consists of receptors, neurons, neurotransmitters, and cannabinoids, all working together to keep your body in a state of balance. This balance is called homeostasis.
Your body is super efficient with its resources. That's a survival mechanism — it wants to use just enough energy to keep your systems running efficiently, but not too much power to wipe you out. That's why you sweat when you're hot and shiver when you're cold: your body naturally wants to maintain the ideal body temperature to keep your systems running.
Homeostasis also explains why your body attacks germs and viruses that would otherwise make you sick. When there's an infiltrator, your immune system kicks into high gear to get rid of the bad guy and keep your body healthy. Your endocannabinoid system is a vital part of maintaining that balance.
The endocannabinoid system is made of three main parts:
- Cannabinoid receptors that sit on the surface of cells
- Endocannabinoids that bind to cannabinoid receptors
- Metabolic enzymes that break down endocannabinoids
Think about that bright yellow daisy. Its surface contains all the nectar and pollen the bee needs to bring back to its hive. Cannabinoid receptors are really similar. They're protein molecules on a cell's surface. They jolt your endocannabinoid system into action. Currently, we know of two primary cannabinoid receptors: CB1, which is mostly found in the brain, and CB2, which is primarily found in the immune system.Endocannabinoids
Endocannabinoids are a lot like bees. In nature, bees are responsible for pollinating flowers and alerting members of their hive when there’s danger. Similarly, endocannabinoids are the messengers of the endocannabinoid system. They bind to the endocannabinoid receptors on your cells, helping to bring your body back to homeostasis.
You might have heard of two main cannabinoids in cannabis plants: CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). That said, endocannabinoids don't necessarily come from plants. They're also naturally produced by your body. (We'll talk more about cannabis below.) Your body makes two types of endocannabinoids: 2-AG (2-Arachidonoylglycerol) and AEA (anandamide)
Just like Mother Nature needs bees and flowers to work together, you need endocannabinoid receptors AND endocannabinoids to keep your body in balance. They bind together and alert your endocannabinoid system when it’s time to kick into gear.
After the endocannabinoids have done their job, metabolic enzymes have one job: they gobble up the endocannabinoids and break them down. You can think of these guys as the animals that graze on flowers.
Putting It All Together
Unlike most systems in your body that start from the beginning, the endocannabinoid system works backward. It creates the known solution for a problem rather than have a problem in need of a solution.
Here's one example. You might have heard of inflammation, your body's natural response to injury. It's how your body signals to your immune system that something needs to be healed, like damaged tissue. When a part of your body is inflamed, endocannabinoids bind to receptors on specific cells to treat the inflammation and restore homeostasis[efn_note]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2139910/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2139910/[/efn_note].
Researchers don't yet know how the endocannabinoid system works. Still, this signaling occurs in situations like nerve injury, inflammation, and tissue damage[efn_note]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5877694/[/efn_note]. Early evidence suggests that the endocannabinoid system also plays a role in managing chronic pain, mood, and even nervous system disorders[efn_note]https://journals.lww.com/pain/Abstract/2013/01000/Role_of_CB1_and_CB2_cannabinoid_receptors_in_the.25.aspx https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28240187 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2139910/[/efn_note].
Endogenous vs. Exogenous Cannabinoids
So, what about cannabis?
You already know that your body naturally makes two types of endocannabinoids: 2-AG and AEA. These are endogenous cannabinoids, which means they’re made withinyour body. (“Endo” means “within.”)
Compounds from cannabis and other plants also affect your endocannabinoid receptors. These compounds are called "exogenous cannabinoids," which means they come from outsidethe body.
The cannabis plant is made of hundreds of different compounds, including the cannabinoids CBD and THC. These compounds bind to your endocannabinoid receptors, just like the ones produced by your own body. That means something found in nature is capable of helping your body stay in balance — which is pretty amazing.
Endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome
The endocannabinoid system is so essential that you may have a higher risk of developing certain conditions if you're deficient in endocannabinoids, according to early studies. This is called endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome or clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). Research has found associations between endocannabinoid deficiency and conditions like PTSD, migraines, fibromyalgia, and IBS[efn_note]http://news.vumc.org/2017/03/28/vanderbilt-study-finds-natural-chemical-helps-brain-adapt-to-stress/ https://www.nature.com/articles/mp201361 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5576607/[/efn_note].
How to Boost Your Endocannabinoid System
CBD and THC both interact with your body's endocannabinoid receptors to produce specific effects. Some people use CBD to manage pain, while others use THC for medicinal purposes — or just to get high with friends.
- THC gets you high because of the way it binds to your body’s endocannabinoid receptors.
- CBD doesn’t get you high because it doesn’t bind to your receptors the same way that THC does. Instead, it changes the way THC binds to endocannabinoid receptors.
The entourage effect explains how cannabinoids work together in a specific way, and you can read more about it here.
Terpenes are compounds found in the essential oils of plants. They're found in cannabis and contribute to the plant's therapeutic effects — but they're also pretty amazing on their own. Studies suggest that terpenes can also interact with your endocannabinoid system to help manage inflammation, pain, and even heart health[efn_note]https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/can.2018.0014 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874117320172 https://lipidworld.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-511X-11-8[/efn_note].
One terpene, in particular, Β-caryophyllene, has been shown to interact with the endocannabinoid system in rodent studies to reduce inflammation, anxiety, depression, and pain[efn_note]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027858461200084X[/efn_note][efn_note]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031938414003400[/efn_note][efn_note]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0944711313003097[/efn_note][efn_note]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4469960/[/efn_note][efn_note]https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/cam4.816 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18574142/ [/efn_note][efn_note]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19302047/[/efn_note]. This terpene is found in a variety of foods and spices, like oregano, black pepper, cloves … and cannabis.
Want more endocannabinoids? Believe it or not, your lifestyle can support your endocannabinoid system and help you feel more balanced.
Exercise has been shown to activate the endocannabinoid system[efn_note]https://journals.lww.com/neuroreport/Abstract/2003/12020/Exercise_activates_the_endocannabinoid_system.15.aspx[/efn_note][efn_note]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306453011002873[/efn_note].
One 2015 study suggests that the “runner’s high” isn’t just caused by endorphins — the endocannabinoid AEA also plays a role[efn_note]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26438875[/efn_note].
Your diet can produce more endocannabinoids and benefit your entire body, too. Research suggests that omega fatty acids, dark chocolate, kava, and the antioxidant compounds in tea all support the endocannabinoid system[efn_note] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5656721/ [/efn_note][efn_note]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1043661812000722[/efn_note][efn_note] www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165614716300165 [/efn_note][efn_note]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0944711309002566[/efn_note].
Above all else, think of the bees. They work day in and day out, maintaining their hive and pollinating their flowers so everyone can flourish. Some days, the weather isn't so sunny; other days, a predator threatens the colony. But everything balances out in the end, and the world keeps on spinning. Your endocannabinoid system isn't a black-and-white entity. It's a diverse, complicated system that has an important job: keeping your body in homeostasis, which helps your brain and body do all the amazing things it's capable of doing. There's an ecosystem around you and an ecosystem inside of you. Isn't that incredible?
Related Article: CBD + Terpene Combinations for Stress Relief