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Endocannabinoid System Explained – How CBD Works

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Endocannabinoid System Explained

Ever wondered why CBD works so well for so many? The truth is, we all have what is known as an Endocannabinoid System (ECS) within our bodies. A biological network of receptors which help regulate numerous functions such as sleep, mood, pain and inflammation to name but a few.

Like other systems within our bodies, our endocannabinoid system can become depleted and need ‘supplemented’, as would an Iron or Vitamin D deficiency.

If you’re reading this then you’ve no doubt heard about CBD. One would assume that you want to know why CBD does what it does. First off let us look at the history of the ECS.

The history of the Endocannabinoid System

It all started with a scientific breakthrough in 1964 by Raphael Mechoulam who was able to identify & isolate Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for the first time. Not long after was followed by the discovery of CBD – the second most prominent Cannabinoid found in the Cannabis Genus of plants.

Being able to isolate these cannabinoids for the first time was the first step in identifying and understanding the Endo-Cannabinoid System (ECS).

Fast forward to 1988 and the first cannabinoid receptors were found in the brain of rat by Allyn Howlett & William Devane. It turned out that there was an abundance of these receptors; in fact there were more than any other neurotransmitter receptor. This cannabinoid receptor was then called CB1 Receptors.

In 1993 a second cannabinoid receptor was located and obviously called CB2 Receptors. These CB2 Receptors were found, in abundance, in the gut, spleen, heart, liver, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells & the reproductive organs.

Why do we have Endocannabinoid Receptors in the first place?

This question was answered in 1992 when the first endocannabinoid was found discovered. Anandamide, therefore, was the first naturally occurring endogenous cannabinoids.

Anandamide is only one of two known endocannabinoids and attach to the same CB receptors as THC. Perhaps this is why it was called Anandamide that was an old Sanskrit word for Bliss.

Anandamide and 2-ag

The second known endocannabinoid is called 2-arachidonylglycerol (2-AG) which attaches to both CB1 & CB2 Receptors.

These discoveries paved the way to understanding the metabolic pathways of THC which further allows scientists to discover the ECS. A molecular signaling system that resides within us and thousands of other life forms. Pretty much everything apart from insects and is responsible for maintaining homeostasis within our bodies.

cannabinoid bliss molecule
cannabinoid bliss molecule

How do the Cannabinoid Receptors Work?

If you were to compare the cell receptors in your body to a lock, then the chemical molecules in the cannabis plant would be the key to activation. These molecules are called agonists. Every time an agonist binds to the cell, it sends a chemical message, giving the cells a certain instruction.

The ECS is involved in a variety of physiological processes including appetite, mood and pain sensation. The ECS also has been shown to mediate the psychoactive effects of cannabis. Endocannabinoids are the chemical messengers that instruct your body to react in these processes and tell them when to stop. They help maintain optimal balance in the body. This is known as homeostasis.

The two primary receptors in the human body are called CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are found mostly in the central nervous system and the brain. Whereas CB2 receptors are found in the peripheral immune system, such as the liver.

There are many functions for organs with these receptors, such as; appetite, digestion, mood, motor and immune function, fertility and pain. The diversity of receptor locations within the body shows how important endocannabinoids are for daily bodily functions.

Synapse - human neural system
Synapse – human neural system conceptual illustration


Plant substances that stimulate cannabinoid receptors are called Phytocannabinoids. An example is delta9-tetrahydro hydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the most commonly known and the most psychoactive substance in cannabis.

CB1 receptors in the peripheral nervous system are specifically bound to THC, (CB1 is the lock, THC the key). CB1 receptors have many functions such as pain and muscle control. Once activated, THC works by mimicking the body’s endocannabinoids. THC is also an anti-spasmodic and muscle relaxant. Read more about reducing inflammation via diet here.

On the other hand, Cannabidiol (CBD) has more scientific interest than THC. Down to the fact it provides the same therapeutic effects as THC but without the side effect of being ‘high’.

Cannabis & Cannabis Oil
Cannabis & Cannabis Oil

CBD is as beneficial as THC yet has little binding affinity to CB1 and CB2 receptors. Cannabidiol activates several non-cannabinoid receptors and ion channels and acts through many receptor-independent channels. For example, take vanilloid receptors (TRPV1). These receptors also function as ion channels and are known to mediate pain, inflammation, perception and body temperature.

CBD stimulates this receptor as it is an agonist to TRPV1. This new found understanding of the endocannabinoid system and the plant itself has opened many doors in the scientific community.  With its vast amount of therapeutic and medicinal benefits many people are waking up to the benefits of this plant. With ongoing research, there are plenty of doors yet to be opened.