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Introduction to The Endocannabinoid System


It is obvious that the consumption of cannabis has a profound effect on the body, but what makes these psychoactive and physiological changes take place? This is due to the endocannabinoid system, located throughout the body in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, immune cells and is composed of three key components – cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids and metabolic enzymes.

No matter where in the body the goal for the endocannabinoid system is always the same: homeostasis, which is the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment. Leafly.com presented the perfect example by presenting the correlation between homeostasis and Goldilocks and The Three Bears. Conditions need to be just right for our cells to maintain optimum performance, the endocannabinoid system has evolved to draw them back to the “Goldilocks” zone if they move out.

Going back to the three components, it’s important to address the function of each to gain a deeper understanding of this intricate system.  

Cannabinoid receptors are the first layer of the system, they sit on the surface of the cells and relay information regarding changing conditions in order to activate the proper cellular response. The two major cannabinoid receptors are CB1 and CB2, these are the receptors that are activated when consuming CBD or THC and what cause users to feel high when consuming THC.

Endocannabinoids are the molecules that bind to cannabinoid receptors, similar to cannabinoids like THC which fits together with CB1 receptors leaving the user feeling “high” and CBD which does not. Endocannabinoids – endo meaning “within”, however, are produced naturally within the human body. “There are two major endocannabinoids: anandamide and 2-AG. These endocannabinoids are made from fat-like molecules within cell membranes and are synthesized on-demand. This means that they get made and used exactly when they’re needed, rather than packaged and stored for later use like many other biological molecules.”

The final component of the endocannabinoid system is the metabolic enzymes which destroy endocannabinoids once they’ve been utilized. FAAH breaks down anandamide while MAGL is responsible for breaking down 2-AG. Destroying endocannabinoids prevents them from being used longer than necessary.

“The three key components of the ECS can be found within almost every major system of the body. When something brings a cell out of its Goldilocks zone, these three pillars of the ECS are often called upon to bring things back, thus maintaining homeostasis.”