People around the world have enjoyed the benefits of the cannabis plant for millennia.Only in the past few decades, though, have scientists begun to understand how cannabis produces its effects. CBD certainly is not a new discovery, though there is still much to be discovered. Scientists are working to learn more about how CBD produces the many benefits reported by its users, including relief from anxiety, anti-inflammatory properties, and more. What they do know is that CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system. But what is this system, and why should it interest you?

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endogenous (which means something that originates from within) cannabinoid (named after the plant that led to its discovery) system, also known as the endocannabinoid system or ECS, is present in all vertebrate animals, including mammals,birds, reptiles, fish, and, yes, humans.

In humans, in addition to the ECS there are 12 body systems. These systems are collections of organs, tissues, and other internal mechanisms that function together to accomplish a specific purpose. For example, the circulatory system consists of the heart, veins, arteries, and blood, and its purpose is to circulate the blood throughout the body. The ECS' purpose is to maintain homeostasis, which is the maintenance of a stable internal environment. The ECS accomplishes this through a system of endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes that are found nearly everywhere in the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. Some believe that the ECS is critical to establishing and maintaining health.

What Does the ECS Do? 

The ECS is the body's regulatory network that mediates key physiological and cognitive functions such as mood, immune function, pain, appetite, sleep, and metabolism. Its three key components are:

  • Cannabinoid receptors, found on the surface of cells
  • Endocannabinoids, specialized fatty acid-based signaling chemicals that activate cannabinoid receptors
  • Metabolic enzymes that break down endocannabinoids after they are used

Cannabinoid Receptors

The main cannabinoid receptors that are known are CB1 and CB2. Found throughout the body, CB1 receptors are more numerous in the central nervous system, especially the spinal cord and brain, and CB2 receptors more abundantly appear outside of the nervous system, particularly in immune system cells.

When receptors are activated by specific chemicals, cannabinoids, they communicate to the cells they are attached to that some corresponding action needs to happen.


Though there are several endocannabinoids made by your body, the two first discovered are most known: anandamide and 2-AG. Edocannabinoids are made from fat-like molecules within cell membranes. They are synthesized on-demand, which means the body only makes them when they are needed. 

Metabolic Enzymes 

Metabolic enzymes, primarily FAAH and MAGL quickly destroy endocannabinoids once they are used and no longer needed. Though these enzymes break down endocannabinoids rapidly, they are not as effective at breaking down other cannabinoids, such as those from the cannabis plant.

What Exactly Is CBD? 

Cannabidiol, better known as CBD, is one of more than 100 chemical compounds known as cannabinoids that are found in the cannabis plant. These chemicals are similar to those discussed above, and they are called phytocannabinoids (plant cannabinoids) to distinguish them from the endogenous cannabinoids made by the body.

CBD is extracted from the hemp plant and then infused into oil, tinctures, edibles, and other forms to facilitate ingestion, inhalation, or absorption into the body.

How Does CBD Interact With the ECS? 

Phytocannabinoids like CBD mimic endocannabinoids. Different phytocannabinoids have different effects depending on the receptors they bind to. CBD, unlike the other well-known cannabinoid THC, does not bind strongly to CB1 receptors in the brain. Therefore, CBD does not produce psychoactive properties like THC does. Experts are not sure how exactly CBD interacts with the ECS; they do know that CBD does not bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the way that THC does. CBD also is suspected to operate on receptors and in channels outside of the ECS system as well.

What Does Research Suggest About CBD's Effect on the ECS?

Research into the ECS and specifically CBD's effect on the ECS is relatively recent, and much remains to be studied and understood. The interaction of CBD with the CB2 receptors is complex, and much of CBD's interaction with the ECS relates to its effect on the endocannabinoids in your body. One way CBD functions is by inhibiting the enzyme that break down the endocannabinoid anandamide. Slowing the decomposition of anandamide increases the levels of that endocannabinoid. Increased anandamide levels are associated with a decrease in feelings of anxiousness. Anandamide is thought to be responsible for the "runner's high" people experience with intense exercise.

While research is still ongoing, many studies have been conducted thus far, with positive results. Early research supports CBD's promise as:

Current research indicates CBD, through its interaction with the ECS, has a powerful therapeutic potential for a variety of ailments. CBD's effects likely go beyond just the scope of ECS regulation, since CBD binds with multiple types of receptors. Further research is needed to fully explore the potential health benefits of CBD.

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About the Author

Melissa Jenkins is a freelance writer of many topics, researcher, and consultant in community healthcare. She enjoys sharing information about innovative technologies, legal rights, and interesting ideas, as well as translating complex subjects into plain language.