How Does The Endocannabinoid System Work?

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Endocannabinoid System Explained

Cannabis has been used for thousands of years. But, it wasn’t until the arrival of modern science that we gained an understanding of how it works.

The primary outcome of this scientific inquiry was the discovery of the endocannabinoid system and how it works, which has an immense impact on our health. The discovery, central role, and importance of our endocannabinoid system is explained below.

What Is The Endocannabinoid System and What Is Its Role?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a primary biological system consisting of cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids, and special enzymes.

The central role of the ECS is to help maintain homeostasis: a healthy state of balance within the body. Accordingly, the ECS regulates vital biological processes, including:

  • Discomfort
  • Occasional anxiousness
  • Stress
  • Sleep
  • Appetite
  • And much more

To understand the effects of the ECS, let’s consider inflammation. Some inflammation is a good thing, especially after an injury or an infection. It helps us repair our tissues and remove whatever was causing the damage in the first place. But too much inflammation can harm the body and lead to disease.

By regulating inflammation and other processes, the ECS can be thought of as a scale that tips ever so slightly to maintain a healthy balance: not too much, not too little.

How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?

The endocannabinoid system has three major components: endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors, and the enzymes that build and break down these compounds.


Endocannabinoids are cannabinoids produced by the human body (endo meaning “within”). There are two major endocannabinoids: anandamide and 2-AG.

The body produces these compounds on-demand and they are broken down shortly afterward, which made them difficult to discover.

Cannabinoid Receptors

As a quick primer, receptors are protein molecules found on the surface of cells that interact with specific compounds. This interaction produces certain biological effects.

The ECS has two receptors: CB1 and CB2, which only interact with cannabinoids.

Although these receptors are found throughout the body, CB1 is particularly abundant in the central nervous system, whereas CB2 is most common in immune system cells.


The last major component of the ECS is special enzymes that build and break down endocannabinoids. The two most notable of these are:

Monoacylglycerol lipase (MGL), which mainly breaks down 2-AG fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which primarily breaks down anandamide. Interestingly, some people have a genetic variation of the FAAH gene, which decreases its activity, resulting in higher anandamide levels.

The Endocannabinoid System Discovery

The ECS was discovered by mere chance, which led to researchers attempting to figure out how the endocannabinoid system works with our bodies, and more specifically, how phytocannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) produced its effects in the brain.

This discovery was groundbreaking because receptors only exist for molecules that our own body produces. In other words, it meant that the human body must be producing its own cannabinoids.

Plainly enough, two years later, researchers identified anandamide, the first such endocannabinoid. Later on, they identified the second primary cannabinoid receptor (CB2), the endocannabinoid 2-AG, and related enzymes.

Why Is the Endocannabinoid System Important?

Although researchers are still learning more about how the endocannabinoid system works, what science can tell us for sure is that it has an immense impact on our overall health.

This isn’t surprising considering it affects virtually every primary system and process essential to our well-being.

Consequently, researchers believe the endocannabinoid system holds great potential to help with a wide range of conditions.

Endocannabinoid Deficiency

Also, there’s accumulating evidence that a condition characterized by insufficient endocannabinoid levels called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CED) could be the underlying cause of a variety of difficult-to-treat disorders.

First proposed by world-renowned cannabis researcher and expert Dr. Ethan Russo in 2001, this theory has been gaining ground for the past two decades.

How Can I Strengthen the Endocannabinoid System?

There is some research showing that specific dietary and lifestyle changes can strengthen your endocannabinoid system, explained in this article.

Increase Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake

For starters, there’s some evidence that increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids while reducing omega-6 may benefit the ECS. These polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are used by the body to produce endocannabinoids.

There’s some sense to this theory because it’s well established that diets with a low omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio reduce inflammation and the risk of a wide range of health disorders.

To improve dietary omega 6/omega-3 ratio, it’s recommended that you:

  • Avoid vegetable oils rich in omega-6 fatty acids, such as sunflower and corn oil, and processed foods (chips, fast food, etc.) that contain them.
  • Increase intake of unprocessed animal foods, seafood, omega-3 enriched eggs, and consider a fish oil supplement.

Tea and Herbs

Another possible way to strengthen the endocannabinoid system is to take specific herbs, such as Camellia sinensis (tea). For example, one 2010 study found that beneficial tea compounds called catechins may be able to bind to cannabinoid receptors.

Another herbal compound that could be beneficial to the endocannabinoid system is beta-caryophyllene. Research suggests this terpene compound can activate the CB2 receptor, which produces anti-inflammatory effects.

Regarded by some researchers as the “dietary cannabinoid,” beta-caryophyllene is found in a wide variety of herbs, including black pepper, cloves, oregano, basil, cinnamon, rosemary, and cannabis.

Other plants containing compounds with potential endocannabinoid system benefits include legumes, Boswellia, echinacea, and rue.

Eat Dark Chocolate

There’s also some evidence that chocolate contains three compounds that are similar in structure to endocannabinoids.

As a result, ingesting these compounds may be able to activate cannabinoid receptors or inhibit the breakdown of endocannabinoids, resulting in higher endocannabinoid levels.

These compounds are highest in dark chocolate and raw cacao. Could this be why chocolate is so addictive and seems to produce positive feelings?

Avoid Alcohol and Plastic

Other ways to strengthen your endocannabinoid system are to avoid alcohol (especially in large amounts) and plastic.

For example, one 2007 study in rats found that high amounts of alcohol decreased the levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide. Meanwhile, there’s evidence that phthalate, a type of compound added to the plastic, may disrupt the endocannabinoid system by blocking the CB1 receptor.

Manage Stress

We already know that stress is bad for us, and now we have yet another reason why: it can negatively impact your endocannabinoid system, explained in this article.

There are many ways to relieve stress, such as regular exercise, meditation, yoga, and socializing. Also, there’s some evidence that acupuncture and massage, two standard methods of stress relief, can increase endocannabinoid levels. CBD has been in the limelight in recent years for its unique ability to interact with corresponding receptors throughout our bodies, providing us with wide-ranging benefits that include experiencing relaxation and mental clarity. For well-rounded support in body and mind, we recommend starting with Balance, which is available in drops, softgels, and gluten-free gummies.

Keeping Your Endocannabinoid System Healthy

In sum, we can see that understanding how the endocannabinoid system works is crucial as it plays a significant role in our health. Its dysfunction may contribute to a variety of health issues and be the key behind some difficult-to-treat disorders.

As such, we must support the endocannabinoid system in any way we can. Emerging research shows that many of the dietary and lifestyle habits long known to improve our health, such as cutting out processed foods, increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake, avoiding alcohol, and getting plenty of exercise, may contribute to a stronger, healthier endocannabinoid system.

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