Demystifying the Endocannabinoid System (Components, Functions)

We all have some understanding of the human body’s systems, like the digestive or central nervous system (CNS). 

But how familiar are you with the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?
Not so much?

Don’t worry — we’ve got you covered!

The ECS controls and regulates many essential bodily functions and helps keep our bodies balanced.

Keep reading to find out everything about the ECS.

Also Check Out

  • New to the world of CBD? Discover everything you need to know in our CBD Guide.


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What Is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)?

The ECS is an extensive network of chemical signals and cellular receptors in our immune cells, central nervous system, and other parts of the body. 

The ECS is responsible for our:

But the primary purpose of the ECS is to restore balance and calm our brain — known as homeostasis. (More on this later.)

What Are the Main Components of the ECS?

The ECS comprises three main components:

A. Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids (endogenous cannabinoids) are neurotransmitters that send signals between our body’s nerve cells. 

Our brain naturally produces endocannabinoids, and they’re found in our tissues, organs, muscles, and cells — hence the name “endo” cannabinoids. 

Currently, we know of two main endocannabinoids:

  • Anandamide (AEA or arachidonoyl ethanolamide): Known as the ‘blissful molecule’ since it makes us feel happy and boosts our mental health.
  • 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG): Regulates our energy balance, pain response, emotion, cognition, and more.
Side note: Scientists believe there are more endocannabinoids in our bodies, but there is limited research on their functions. 

B. Endocannabinoid Receptors

Cannabinoid receptors are found on the surface of our cells. Endocannabinoids attach to these receptors, signaling the body to respond accordingly. 

Two primary cannabinoid receptors in our bodies are:

  • Endocannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1): Mainly found in the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain), lungs, liver, and kidneys. This receptor regulates pain, inflammation, memory, and appetite. 
  • Endocannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2): Primarily found in the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and our immune cells. This receptor is mainly responsible for reducing inflammation. 

C. Enzymes

Think of enzymes as your body’s keeper. 

They allow endocannabinoids to do their job but quickly break them down when they’re no longer needed. This way, your body gets enough of what it needs to function properly. 

Two main enzymes do this:

  • Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down AEA
  • Monoacylglycerol lipase, which breaks down 2-AG

Once the enzymes break down the endocannabinoids, our body releases arachidonic acid (a fatty acid). 

What does this fatty acid do?

Arachidonic acid plays an important role in restoring balance to our core body temperature, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.

Now you might be wondering…

How Do the Endocannabinoids, Receptors, and Enzymes Work Together?

Scientists believe our brain releases endocannabinoids when there’s some imbalance in the body.   

Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor and trigger a unique response, depending on where the cannabinoid receptor is in the human body. 


Here are two examples:

If you’re feeling too hot, your body may release endocannabinoids that bind to the CB1 receptor in your central nervous system. 

The result?

The ECS will lower your body’s temperature until it reaches a normal range. 

Then, the enzymes break down the endocannabinoids to prevent your body from overcooling. 

On the other hand:

If the endocannabinoids attach to a CB2 receptor in your immune system, your body may trigger an anti-inflammatory response, reducing inflammation.

The enzymes will then break down the endocannabinoids, keeping your body healthy. 

Let’s now learn more about the role of the endocannabinoid system.

What Does the ECS Do?

Researchers believe the ECS’ main function is to return our bodies to homeostasis. 

But the ECS also regulates and controls other vital functions in our bodies, such as:

1. Chronic Pain

Recent studies show the endogenous cannabinoid system can influence how we respond to pain:

  • The CB1 receptors are found at the central and peripheral levels of our pain pathways. According to a 2018 study, the CB1 receptor regulates our brain’s response (including emotional responses) to pain.
  • In a 2017 study, scientists discovered the CB2 receptor limited inflammatory hypersensitivity and reduced inflammation. 
  • Several clinical trials also indicate THC and CBD are effective treatments against inflammation and pain associated with your central nervous system (CNS) and cancer. 

What are THC and CBD?

They are two popular plant cannabinoids.

Read More: Learn about the Key Differences Between CBD and THC.

2. Appetite 

Studies show endocannabinoids interact with the CB1 receptor in the ECS to boost our appetite:

  • In one of the earliest studies on the ECS, scientists administered low doses of anandamide and 2-AG (endocannabinoids) to mice. The result? The mice started eating more!
  • A 2006 study (also on mice) found excess endocannabinoids can lead to obesity. When the animals were given an endocannabinoid blocker, they ate less.
Interesting Fact:

In 2006, scientists created rimonabant — an anti-obesity medication that blocked the CB1 receptor. Since this cannabinoid receptor controls hunger, the drug helped people eat less. 

Why’s rimonabant not around today?

In addition to appetite, the CB1 receptor regulates our mood. Consequently, people who used rimonabant suffered from depression, anxiety, and insomnia. So the FDA and European Medicines Agency (EMA) withdrew the medication in 2009. 

3. Stress Response

A 2010 study found we feel more stressed and anxious when our ECS isn’t functioning properly. But a moderate increase in endocannabinoid signaling can decrease stress and anxiety. 

Simple, right? Not exactly! 

The same study also shows overstimulating the ECS can lead to anxiety-like responses. 

This is why THC has a psychoactive effect on our bodies and can lead to mental health issues like paranoia and anxiety. (More about the effects of cannabis use on ECS later.)

On the other hand:

CBD doesn’t target the endocannabinoid receptors directly and can reduce stress — without any psychoactive side effects. 

According to a 2019 study, CBD can reduce anxiety levels in patients with a social anxiety disorder (SAD). 

So, it’s no surprise that CBD products (CBD oil, gummies, creams, etc.) are usually used to treat stress and anxiety, as well as insomnia (a common contributor to stress). 

4. Memory and Learning

To learn how ECS affects our memory, scientists studied the impact of plant cannabinoids (THC and CBD) and synthetic cannabinoids (artificial drugs that bind to the same receptors as cannabinoids) on the ECS.

A 2016 neuroscience study found:

  • THC impairs our short-term memory and our ability to form long-term memories.
  • On the flip side, endocannabinoid blockers that bind to cannabinoid receptors (to stop the ECS from activating) can enhance our memory and learning. 

But wait, it’s not all cut and dried.

There’s also some contradictory research on the ECS and memory. 

The same 2016 study found the ECS reacts differently depending on the type of cannabinoid, dosage, and the way it is ingested. It can either impair our short-term memory or enhance our learning processes. 

The good news?

While research around the ECS and memory is limited, scientists are hopeful. 

Since the ECS can enhance or impair memory, experts can create medication targeting the ECS to treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Alzheimer’s disease (according to a study on PubMed).

But we’re not done yet.

Other crucial functions the ECS regulates include:

  • Energy and metabolism
  • Sleep
  • Immune system
  • Reproductive system function
  • Mood and emotions
  • Muscle formation
  • Cardiovascular system function
  • Liver function
  • Skin and nerve cell function

3 FAQs Related to the ECS

Three commonly asked questions about the ECS are:

1. What Is Endocannabinoid Deficiency?

Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) is a theory suggesting low levels of endocannabinoids can lead to migraines, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

These conditions often have no underlying cause, are challenging to treat, and can sometimes co-occur.

Bottom line?

If endocannabinoid deficiency does play an important role in these conditions, targeting the ECS with proper medication may help reduce the underlying symptoms.

Side Note: 

Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency is still a medical theory, and more research is needed.

Experts have developed experimental medications like synthetic cannabinoids to target the ECS by boosting or reducing endogenous cannabinoid levels. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Food Standards Agency (FSA) HAVE NOT approved these medications due to serious side effects.

2. How Can You Support Your Endocannabinoid System?

You can support your endocannabinoid system naturally by:

  • Exercising: Research shows cardiovascular exercises (running, cycling, swimming) can boost your body’s endogenous cannabinoid levels. 
  • Eating healthy fats: Endocannabinoids are lipids (fatty and oily molecules). So you need to eat healthy fats for your body to produce them sufficiently.
    Psst… Love Mediterranean food? You’re in luck! Recent studies show a Mediterranean diet can boost your ECS and overall health.
  • Trying alternative therapies: You can also support your ECS by trying alternative therapies like meditation and acupuncture. 

3. How Are Endocannabinoids Different from Cannabinoids?

Here’s the main difference:

  • Endocannabinoids or endogenous cannabinoids are molecules our bodies produce naturally. 
  • On the other hand, cannabinoids are compounds found in cannabis plants.

Cannabinoids In Your Endocannabinoid System: How They Work


Endocannabinoids aren’t the only chemical compounds your ECS can interact with.

Exogenous cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) can also affect your ECS and trigger unique responses.

Here’s how these exogenous cannabinoids react with our CB receptors and the ECS:

A. How Does THC Interact with the ECS?

THC is the main cannabinoid found in cannabis and hemp plants. It’s also present in medical marijuana and is responsible for making you feel high. 

THC is considered a partial agonist — a substance that binds to receptors.

Why’s this important?

Once ingested, THC can bind to the CB 1 receptor and CB2 receptor!

That’s why medical marijuana can affect cannabis users in many ways.


The positive effects of cannabis include:

  • Pain relief for conditions like multiple sclerosis
  • Stimulating appetite
  • Reducing nausea

But here’s the kicker:

Since THC is a mind-altering compound, it has several adverse effects, like:

  • Slowed reaction time
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Other psychoactive effects that can worsen conditions like schizophrenia.

B. How Does CBD Interact with the ECS?

CBD is another cannabinoid found in the hemp or cannabis plant. 

Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t make you feel high and has minimal side effects when taken at the correct dose. 

But those aren’t the only differences. 

CBD also doesn’t attach to the CB1 or CB2 receptor. 

Instead, it binds with other receptors like the serotonin, opioid, and vanilloid receptor. 

Interestingly, some experts think CBD binds with a third cannabinoid receptor yet to be discovered!

What’s more?

Experts also believe CBD prevents our enzymes from breaking down endocannabinoids. This way, our bodies can experience their effects for longer. 

And while research is limited, studies have shown CBD can ease chronic pain, offset anxiety and depression, reduce epilepsy symptoms, eliminate cancer cells, and more.

Interesting Fact:

Raphael Mechoulam (the ‘Father of Cannabis Research’) discovered tetrahydrocannabinol, a cannabinoid, in 1964. His research lead to the discovery of the ECS!

But that’s not all.

In 1980, Raphael Mechoulam also discovered CBD could treat seizures and epilepsy.

The result?

UK-based GW Pharmaceuticals used the discovery to develop Epidiolex — the first plant-based cannabis prescription drug.

Boost the Endocannabinoids in Your Body with CBD!

The ECS is responsible for your mood, digestion, pain relief, and more. 

But like any system in the human body, the ECS sometimes needs some support to function properly. And that’s where CBD comes into the picture.  

Not sure where to get CBD products?

Head to GreenBox to discover a range of exciting, high-quality CBD supplements, including CBD oil, balms, CBD gummies, and more!