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The Endocannabinoid System - What is it and How does it Work?

Although humans have used cannabinoids for thousands of years, we never really knew how they worked. That all changed in 1990, when researchers discovered the endocannabinoid system for the first time. The endocannabinoid system is a network of pathways in the body that sends messages to certain cells. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD use this system to impart their effects onto a user.

The end result? They get high.

That's an extremely simplified version of the process, though. If you're an inquisitive smoker, you may have wondered how exactly marijuana affects your body. This page is for you - we detailed everything here in our guide to the endocannabinoid system.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

Every vertebrate – from fish to humans – has an endocannabinoid system. The term “endo” refers to something happening within the body, so the term refers to the body’s own internal cannabinoid system. Regardless of whether someone is a smoker or not, their endocannabinoid system is running constantly every moment of their life.

The endocannabinoid system is a subsection of the central nervous system (CNS) that helps regulate a bodily function called homeostasis. Think of homeostasis as all of your body’s background processes including things like heartbeat, breathing, immune system responses, and more. However, the endocannabinoid system doesn’t control every aspect of this complex process. Instead, it affects a few key components of homeostasis, including:

  • Appetite
  • Digestion
  • Mood
  • Metabolism
  • Memory
  • Sleep
  • Immune system responses
  • Stress
  • Motor control

It’s interesting to note that while fish all have endocannabinoid systems, no aquatic plants have any cannabinoids.

How does the Endocannabinoid System Work?

The endocannabinoid system functions by sending neurotransmitters, called endocannabinoids, through the body. The endocannabinoid is a chemical “message” that your body creates to bind to a receptor to trigger a response. Then, an enzyme breaks down the endocannabinoid, and the process concludes.

While this system uses neurotransmitters to send messages throughout the body, it differs from other neurotransmitter systems. Most neurotransmitters act as an on/off switch for their message. However, the endocannabinoid system acts more like a damper switch. Instead of dealing with absolutes, endocannabinoids can communicate degrees of difference.

Parts of the Endocannabinoid System

Researchers have discovered three main components that make up this system: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes. These three parts all fulfil crucial roles, working in synergy to make the endocannabinoid system function.

Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids are a family of proteins that trigger receptors to initiate certain processes. While endocannabinoids are chemically similar to the cannabinoids produced by marijuana plants, the body produces and releases its own endocannabinoids naturally. When an endocannabinoid binds to a receptor, it sends messages to the body.

While these proteins are considered neurotransmitters, they don’t work the same way as any other neurotransmitter we’ve discovered so far. Most neurotransmitters only move in one direction: from a neuron across a synapse to a receptor. Then, the receptor tells the body how to react to the neurotransmitter’s message. Endocannabinoids, however, can flow both forwards and backwards across the synapse. This way, they can regulate how much of an endocannabinoid is released from one cell to another.

The body produces two main cannabinoids: anandamide and 2-arachidonyl glycerol. Researchers suspect that the first, anandamide, binds mostly with CB is responsible for the runner’s high that many athletes report. It also controls cravings for things like chocolate. The second, 2-arachidonyl glycerol, doesn’t discriminate between its receptors – it binds with CB1 and CB2 receptors equally. As a result, it affects things like immune response and can also impart some psychoactive effects.

Receptors

Every interaction in the endocannabinoid system happens because of one of two receptors: CB1 and CB2. These receptors are located on the surface of cell membranes and pay attention to what’s going on outside of the cell. Whenever an endocannabinoid attaches to a receptor, it triggers it.

CB1 receptors, which are located mostly in the brain, is used mostly to bind with THC and initiate the psychoactive high associated with smoking weed. In contrast, CB2 receptors mostly bind to other cannabinoids like CBD. They’re mostly distributed evenly throughout the CNS. CB2 receptors trigger marijuana’s non-psychoactive effects like inflammation and appetite.

Enzymes

Enzymes work the same way in the endocannabinoid system that they do throughout the body: they break down proteins. Once an endocannabinoid binds to a receptor, an enzyme breaks it down. This tells the body that the endocannabinoid’s massage has been received, and prevents the same endocannabinoid from triggering a receptor more than once. There are certain enzymes built specifically by the body to work with endocannabinoids. Fatty acid amino hydrolase (FAAH), for example, is a type of enzyme that breaks down anandamide after it triggers a receptor.

Enzymes mark another key difference between how endocannabinoids and other neurotransmitters function. Many other neurotransmitters, like hormones, aren’t broken down after they relay their messages. Instead, they’re repackaged and put away until they’re needed again. In contrast, enzymes physically destroy endocannabinoids once they’re no longer needed. In other words, the body creates and destroys endocannabinoids on-demand while it stores other neurotransmitters to save them for later.

How Cannabinoids Affect the Endocannabinoid System

Cannabinoids use the endocannabinoid system in the same way that endocannabinoids do – they bind to a receptor to trigger a message before an enzyme breaks them down. THC usually binds to CB1 receptors, while CBD and other non-psychoactive cannabinoids bind to CB2 receptors. The only difference, aside from their chemical structures, is that they’re not produced inside the body.

Humans can use cannabinoids to “hack” the endocannabinoid system, producing several effects associated with smoking weed. Some of these include:

  • Feeling high
  • Increased appetite (“the munchies”)
  • Reduced stress
  • Decreased inflammation

The Wrap-Up

Regardless of how you ingested your cannabis – by smoking, eating, or another way –, it’ll activate the endocannabinoid system. This is just a cursory overview of how the endocannabinoid system affects the body. Now that you have a better idea of what’s happening to your body when you smoke weed, you no longer need to wonder what marijuana is doing to make you high.