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Cannabinoids and the Endocannabinoid System

Your body has a variety of systems in place to keep it running. The cardiovascular system pumps oxygen and other nutrients to your tissues. Your respiratory system brings air into and out of your lungs. Your digestive system helps you break down food and utilize their precious nutrients. Each system plays a critical role in keeping you healthy.

But did you know your body also has an endocannabinoid system?

Even though most people are unaware of this system, it has a huge impact on your mental and physical health. In fact, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is regarded as “the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health” (1).

Bold statement, but it’s true. This is partly why hemp oil supplements with CBD have become so popular—because evidence suggests they support the endocannabinoid system (2).

Once you learn about how the ECS works and how it affects your body, taking cannabinoid-rich hemp oil becomes a no-brainer.

How CBD Oil Works with the Endocannabinoid System

What is The Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system is a complex network of receptors, receptor molecules, and enzymes. Components of the ECS can be found throughout your entire body. This includes your immune system, brain, gut, and central nervous system.

Parts of the Endocannabinoid System: The endocannabinoid system consists of three primary components:

  1. Cannabinoid receptors: Structures found on the surface of cells. When activated, they stimulate the ECS.
  2. Cannabinoids: Molecules that specifically bind to and activate cannabinoid receptors.
  3. Enzymes: Breaks down cannabinoids once they’re no longer needed.

Cannabinoid Receptors

Cannabinoid receptors can be found all throughout your body. They are embedded in the membranes, or surface, of your cells. Receptors are like the ignition of a car. If you have the key that fits, you can start the car and drive. In this case, when a cannabinoid comes along (the key), it binds to the cannabinoid receptors and stimulates the ECS (i.e., starting the car).

Endocannabinoid Receptors in the Body

The two primary cannabinoid receptors are CB1 and CB2. There are other cannabinoid receptors, but these two are the most well-studied. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the central nervous system which includes your brain and spinal cord (3). As such, the CB1 receptor is thought to regulate anxiety, stress, learning, memory, and your overall mood (4).

CB2 receptors are predominantly found in cells that are part of the immune system. Which means they primarily affect immune system homeostasis. But they have other roles as well.


Cannabinoids are the molecules that “turn on” the endocannabinoid system by binding to cannabinoid receptors. There are two primary types of cannabinoids that control the ECS: endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids.

How Cannabinoids Work in the Body


Endocannabinoids are molecules naturally produced by your body. Specifically, your cells produce them on an as-needed basis. The two most prominent cannabinoids are anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG). Both of which have a long list of scientifically supported benefits (5). 


Anandamide is a neurotransmitter that’s produced in the brain. Due to its effects on the body, anandamide has earned itself the nickname, “bliss molecule.” That’s because elevated levels of anandamide are often associated with feelings of happiness and well-being. Anandamide is also shown to encourage the growth of new brain cells (6).

2-Arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG)

2-Arachidonoyl glycerol, or 2-AG, binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors of the endocannabinoid system. Scientists believe that 2-AG specifically plays a large role in suppressing inflammation by modulating the body’s immune response (7).


Unlike endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids are not produced in the body. Instead, they are found in cannabis and hemp. Because they stimulate the endocannabinoid system in a similar way to endocannabinoids, hemp oil supplements have become incredibly popular.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that phytocannabinoids exert a wide range of beneficial effects. Studies indicate that cannabinoids may:

  1. Fight temporary inflammation (8)
  2. Ease the effects of stress (9)
  3. Calm joint discomfort
  4. Support restful sleep (10)
  5. Promote heart health (11)
  6. Act as an antioxidant (12)
  7. Support exercise recovery (13)

They are truly impressive molecules to say the least.

The most common phytocannabinoids include THC, the famous CBD (cannabidiol), cannabichromene, and cannabigerol. While endocannabinoids may provide similar benefits, phytocannabinoids are helpful if your body doesn’t produce enough endocannabinoids on its own.


Enzymes are tiny structures that break down substances in the body. They are an essential part of countless biochemical reactions in the body. For the ECS, enzymes disassemble cannabinoids when they’re no longer needed. This ensures that the ECS isn’t “overstimulated.”

Enzymes that Break Down Cannabinoids in the Body

While there are several enzymes involved with the ECS, the two most important ones are FAAH and MAGL. FAAH, or fatty acid amide hydrolase breaks down anandamide. MAGL, or monoacylglycerol lipase, deconstructs 2-AG (14).

With this in mind, the ECS can have a greater effect if these enzymes are temporarily shut down. This is the case with phytocannabinoids like CBD. Scientists believe CBD inhibits the FAAH enzyme which causes the ECS to act with a greater balancing force (15).

The Role of The Endocannabinoid System

Because the ECS is such a vast system, it affects countless systems in the body. It’s like the big boss that controls all of the other systems in your body. The master system, so to speak.

The endocannabinoid system has to be vast in order to carry out its primary role: maintaining homeostasis.

The Endocannabinoid System Balances the Body

The ECS and Homeostasis

Homeostasis is the continuous process of achieving a state of balance. Think of yin and yang or a set of scales. Homeostasis is all about finding that perfect sweet spot so your body can function in an optimal state.

Maintaining homeostasis, or balance, is key to living a healthy life.

  • If your blood pressure is too high, it can lead to heart problems. But if it’s too low, your blood won’t circulate as it should.

  • If your skin produces too much oil, you might get acne. When it doesn’t produce enough, it can get dry.

  • If your immune system is too weak you will get sick. But if it’s too overactive, it may result in autoimmune disease.

The point is, maintaining homeostasis is incredibly important. And the ECS is the invisible hand that controls homeostasis. To drive the point even further, here are some examples of how the endocannabinoid system helps the body stay in a balanced state.

Example 1: The ECS and Your Brain

Your brain has about 100 billion neurons (16). These neurons control basic functions with chemicals called neurotransmitters. This includes functions like talking, moving, breathing, and learning.

Much like any system in the body, your neurons perform best when they are in the homeostatic sweet spot. When the balance of neurotransmitters goes haywire, things can easily go wrong.

For example, an excess of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine can result in chronic stress or anxiety (17). Low levels of norepinephrine, on the other hand, can result in extreme fatigue, a lack of concentration, and a poor mood (18). This is where the endocannabinoid system comes into play.

According to Dr. Ethan Russo, neurologist and medical scientist, the endocannabinoid system regulates “neurotransmitter function … if there’s too much of one kind of neurotransmitter it will bring it down, if there’s too little it will bring it up.” (19)

Example 2: The ECS and Inflammation

Inflammation is your body’s natural response to infection or physical injury. In low amounts, it’s beneficial for healing damaged tissue and fighting dangerous microbes that cause illness or disease. Once the infection is eliminated or the injury is healed, the inflammation goes away. Your body then can return to a healthy, balanced state.

But things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes inflammation can persist well after it’s needed. When this happens, it’s called chronic inflammation. Over time, it can wreak havoc on your body (20).

Too much inflammation is harmful, whereas too little will leave your body vulnerable to germs. Much like your brain, evidence suggests the endocannabinoid system helps to control inflammation homeostasis. Or more specifically, the balance of your immune system.

Scientists have found that endocannabinoids regulate the immune system by limiting the immune response (21). It regulates the immune system by signaling the apoptosis of activated immune cells while simultaneously suppressing proinflammatory cells like cytokines and chemokines (22).

Simply put, the ECS may combat chronic inflammation by preventing the immune system from becoming overactive. When the immune system is no longer needed in a given area, cells produce endocannabinoids which tell the immune system to back off.

Example 3: The ECS and Stress

Imagine homeostasis as a pendulum, depicted at the beginning of this guide. When it swings to the right, you’re stressed. When it swings to the left, you are completely chill.

Maintaining a balance between these two ends of the pendulum is essential. If you’re constantly stressed, it can send your body haywire. On the flip side, if you’re content to stay in your comfort zone, you won’t accomplish much in life. A small amount of stress is actually beneficial.

Evidence suggests that the endocannabinoid system encourages stress homeostasis by playing a role in stress adaptation (23). Adaptogenic herbs like rhodiola rosea work in a similar fashion.

Simply put, the ECS helps you become more resilient to the effects of stress. That way you can quickly return to a state of balance after a stressful event. Researchers have even found that when the ECS is weak, chronic stress will likely follow suit (24).

Endocannabinoid Deficiency

So, you now know how the endocannabinoid system plays a role in homeostasis, which in turn has a massive impact on your well-being. But what happens when your endocannabinoid system doesn’t work as it should?

Over the past several years, scientists have discovered that the endocannabinoid system can be in a weakened state. When this happens, they call it an endocannabinoid deficiency.

When your body can’t maintain homeostasis due to an endocannabinoid deficiency, it can result in a long list of health issues from headaches, to muscle discomfort, to digestive problems (25). This supports the idea that maintaining homeostasis is absolutely essential for a healthy mind and body.

How Does CBD and Hemp Oil Tie into All This?

Hemp oil is an extract of hemp that contains phytocannabinoids like CBD and cannabichromene. Most companies use specific strains of hemp that are rich in CBD to create their oil.

Hemp oil products have become increasingly popular because of their proposed benefits, supplementing the endocannabinoid system with phytocannabinoids (26). While most phytocannabinoids are thought to have beneficial effects, CBD has gained the most attention.

According to the latest research, CBD inhibits the FAAH enzyme, which deconstructs anandamide (15).  As a result, taking CBD may increase the amount of anandamide in the body, which can stimulate the ECS. This may explain why hemp oil has such a wide range of benefits.

The Bottom Line

The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is a complex network of cannabinoids, receptors, and metabolic enzymes. Its primary role is to help the body and mind maintain homeostasis. In doing so, it keeps countless systems in balance. That way, nothing becomes underactive or overactive. It’s an absolutely essential process for maintaining optimal health.

The problem is, the endocannabinoid system can become weak. When this happens, scientists have predicted that it may result in the development of health problems. This is why phytocannabinoid-rich supplements like hemp oil have become popular, and are projected to become increasingly in demand. The phytocannabinoids affect the ECS, which could result in a wide range of effects due to how the ECS interacts with the body.

Researchers are still trying to fully understand the ECS, how it works, and how cannabinoids affect the body. While phytocannabinoids show promise for their therapeutic effects, this does not mean they are a magic bullet that will cure anything. That being said, hemp oil still remains as an excellent choice for supporting your general health.