The Endocannabinoid System and Cannabis

Viviane Schute        

Cannabis enthusiast and student of the art of solventless extraction


Humans have been using cannabis for thousands of years. The history of human experience has included cannabis for health and wellness and recreation. It’s been a love affair that’s not going away, and for good reason. In some ways, it seems that humans and the cannabis plant were made for each other. The active compounds in cannabis called cannabinoids fit like a hand in glove with a system of receptors in our bodies known as the Endocannabinoid System. 

So what exactly are cannabinoids? Cannabinoids are the naturally occurring compounds in the cannabis plant that are responsible for some of its most noteworthy effects, including the feeling of euphoria. But not all cannabinoids are psychoactive. While THC is famous for the high it gives, CBD is another common cannabinoid that doesn’t impart a psychedelic experience. There are dozens of cannabinoids currently known, however scientific study is lacking. Once cannabis is removed from the Federal list of Schedule 1 Drugs in the US, more funding for scientific research into the cannabis plant will be possible. 

The Endocannabinoid System

Cannabinoids interact directly with a system of receptors and neurotransmitters located throughout the human body, known as the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). As of writing, there are two main kinds of cell receptors that are known to make up the ECS. Cannabinoid Receptor 1, called CB1, is found most densely expressed in the central nervous system. These receptors are primarily responsible for mediating the relationship and effects of cannabinoid binding in the brain. Cannabinoid Receptor 2, called CB2, is found mostly in the tissues of the immune system, gastrointestinal system, brain, and peripheral nervous system. 

Cannabinoids work directly with the ECS (which contains both CB1 and CB2 receptors) to help regulate various critical functions of the body, including immune system, mood, sleep, appetite, digestion, hunger, reproduction/fertility, motor control, memory, and temperature. Some cannabinoids work most effectively with CB1, others work most effectively with CB2.

Cannabinoids are found in largest numbers within the trichomes produced by the flowering female cannabis plant. Cannabinoids can also be extracted from the leaves, stems, and stalks of both male and female plants, but sourcing a medically powerful cannabis product is more efficiently accomplished by using the flowers of a mature female plant. THC is pictured here. 



Most of the full spectrum extracts that are on the market today are processed from cannabis flowers. However, other types of extracts which deliberately exclude certain cannabinoids (namely THC) are derived from the leaves, stems, and seeds of cannabis plants. 

The human body produces its own cannabinoids as well, known as endocannabinoids. These endocannabinoids combine with the receptor cells of the ECS to produce certain physiological reactions, just as the cannabinoids do. The two primary endocannabinoids that the body produces are anandamide and 2-Ag. When cannabis medicine is introduced to the body, it actually mimics the same relationship these endocannabinoids have with our endocannabinoid system. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that cannabis has such a far-reaching effect across multiple systems of our bodies while promoting homeostasis - the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.




Currently there are around 60 different cannabinoids that have been identified, the vast majority of which are still untouched by meaningful scientific research. Of the cannabinoids that have been researched, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) have been the primary focus, due in part to the fact they are often the most prevalent of the cannabinoids produced by the plant. 

THC’s claim to fame is the psychoactive effect known as “being high” that happens when it binds to CB1 receptors. THC has many therapeutic and medicinal effects on the body, and a sense of euphoria and inebriation is only one of the byproducts of its work with the ECS. Among other things, THC can help people find relief from pain, nausea, and depression. 

By contrast, CBD does not have any psychoactive effects and doesn’t lead to feelings of being high or stoned. In fact, CBD has been found to offset the “stony” effects of THC. 

While THC binds directly to CB1 receptors to work its magic, CBD does not not bind directly to CB1 or CB2 receptors. Rather, it reacts with enzymes whose job it is to break down anandamide (our body’s own endocannabinoid), and slows the rate of breakdown. CBD preserves more of the body’s endocannabinoids to enable them to react with the ECS. 

The amounts and ratios of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids that a female cannabis plant  produces depends on both genetics and the growing environment. Some strains of cannabis are bred to have high amounts of THC with low amounts of CBD, as has been the case for the last several decades. Most cannabis consumers have traditionally been looking to get the most bang for their buck in terms of the psychoactive effect of the product. 

Recently, more emphasis has been placed on creating strains that contain higher rates of CBD than THC. These high CBD low THC strains offer an incredible array of therapeutic value without the side effect of feeling high. 


Just as cannabis plants will produce various ratios of cannabinoids like THC and CBD depending on the plant’s genetics and grow environment, there are products available today that come in a variety of CBD:THC ratios. Some products contain no or very little THC (less than .3%), while others contain equal parts CBD to THC. There are several factors to consider when selecting the right mix of cannabinoids to meet each individual’s needs. One constant, however, is the apparent benefit of using at least a small amount of THC with CBD, to enable the entourage effect. 


In addition to cannabinoids, the cannabis plant produces other compounds that contribute to its medicinal value. Aromatic oils, known as terpenes, give cannabis strains their unique flavor and aroma and have the ability to influence the brain’s neurotransmitters. Terpenes are produced by many other plants as well, and although they aren’t exclusive to cannabis, they do play a critical role in the overall therapeutic profile of cannabis medicine. Terpenes play into the entourage effect, and the ratio of terpenes present in CBD products will directly affect the overall experience of using the medicine. Terpenes are at the forefront of new research into the medical benefits of cannabis, and many exciting new discoveries regarding the role of terpenes in cannabis therapy are surely ahead! 


Our bodies’ Endocannabinoid System allows us to enjoy the therapeutic properties of the cannabis plant. This set of receptors interacts with the active compounds in cannabis to unlock the healing power of cannabis in the human body. Different cannabinoids interact in unique ways with this system, and so far only a limited amount of scientific research has been possible. With legalization of cannabis, funding of more research will be possible. 

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What are cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are the naturally occurring compounds in the cannabis plant that produce the therapeutic effects in humans. Examples are THC and CBD. 

What is THC?
THC is the cannabinoid that's mostly associated with the psychedelic, euphoric effects of cannabis. It's the most common cannabinoid. 

What is CBD?
CBD is the cannabinoid that's the second most common after THC. CBD does not give the same psychoactive effect as THC, it's mostly associated with inflammation and pain relief among other benefits. 

What is the Endocannabinoid System?
Cannabinoids interact directly with a system of receptors and neurotransmitters located throughout the human body, known as the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).

Where in the body is our Endocannabinoid System?
The Endocannabinoid System runs throughout our entire body from head to toe. 


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