How Cannabis Works: Exploring the Endocannabinoid System

What really happens when you use cannabis? Many are privy to its profound effects on the human body, but few understand its method of action. The chemical compounds in cannabis affect the endocannabinoid (EC) system, a central component of the health and healing of every human and almost every animal. Scientists estimate that the EC system evolved in primitive animals over 600 million years ago. The endocannabinoids and their receptors are found in the brain, organs, connective tissue, glands and immune cells – all throughout the body. The system is responsible for managing a vast range of physiological processes including mood, memory, pain-sensation, appetite, and regulating the psychoactive effects of cannabis. 

The EC system is a physiological system essential in establishing and maintaining human health.

First, a little biology background. The EC system receptors were originally discovered as being sensitive to THC. Researchers have identified two cannabinoid receptors that comprise the EC system: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the nervous system, connective tissues, gonads, glands, and organs; while CB2 receptors are primarily found in the immune system and other periphery structures. We note that some tissues may contain both receptors, each responsible for a different action. Scientists suspect there is another receptor that has yet to be discovered.

Your body naturally creates endocannabinoids to stimulate these receptors. There are six known endocannabinoids produced naturally by the body; however, your EC system can also be stimulated by phytocannabinoids (plant-based cannabinoids) produced by the cannabis plant. They 'look like' their endogenous counterparts on a molecular level and therefore fit perfectly into your bodies receptors. THC's analogous endogenous compound is a neurotransmitter called anandamide, also known as the 'bliss molecule'. The discovery of anandamide came from research into CB1 and CB2, as it was inevitable that our bodies produce a chemical internally that affects the EC receptors.

Scientists have discovered more than 85 different phytocannabinoids, typically referred to as just cannabinoids, found in various cannabis trichomes. Some are psychoactive while other are non-psychoactive. In essence, the cannabinoids found in cannabis can be thought of as nature's supplement for stimulating the EC system. Another good example of an endogenous / exogenous pair of compounds is morphine and enkephalin. 

Before you smoke, anandamide and dopamine are managing your fine motor skills, appetite, mood, and cognitive abilities in the brain. As soon as you take a hit, various phytocannabinoids slide into your CB1 and CB2 receptors like a key into a lock. Next thing you know, anandamide can't bind to those sites anymore (as they are occupied by THC and other cannabinoids) and you begin to feel euphoric, spacey, and ready for snacks. While these are some of the stereotypical effects of THC, the specifics will vary from strain to strain based on its cannabinoid composition.

Regardless of your stance on the plant, one simple truth exists; a functional EC system is essential for health. Does this mean you need to consume cannabis to be healthy? No, your body is already producing endocannabinoids on its own. But you do need to have a properly functioning EC system to maintain health, which many people supplement with cannabis. Research has shown that small doses of cannabinoids derived from cannabis can signal the body to increase endocannabinoid production and build additional cannabinoid receptors. This may explain why some first-time users don’t ‘get high’ their first time, but have a better response on the second or third try. Each portion of the EC system performs a slightly different task; however, the goal is always the same – homeostasis. Homeostasis is the tendency toward a relatively stable internal environment despite variations in the external environment. Essentially, the EC system is a physiological system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.

While the thought of smoking medicine may be alarming to modern physicians, scientific inquiry and patient testimony indicate that the primary cannabinoids found in cannabis actually work synergistically to produce superior medical effects with less side effects than isolated synthetic cannabinoids. Furthermore, there are a variety of other ways to medicate with cannabis that don’t cause respiratory irritation. For more on safe ways to use cannabis, click here.

Key Takeaways

    Everyone has an Endocannabinoid System; it evolved over 600mil years ago
    A functional endocannabinoid system is essential for health
    The compounds in cannabis mimic the natural chemicals your body produces
      The medical benefits of plant derived cannabinoids vastly exceed the capabilities of isolated synthetics