CBD and the Endocannabinoid System: Understanding How it All Works

by Sarah Surprenant

We’ve all heard about the benefits of CBD - how it allegedly affects mood, pain, inflammation, anxiety, seizures, stress, and more! But why? Why does one molecule have an effect on such an array of different bodily and mental functions? Enter the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). We all have one, which means we all have cannabinoids in our bodies - whether or not we have used CBD products a day in our lives. Adding CBD to the mix helps the Endocannabinoid System operate smoothly. There are 3 main components to the ECS: endocannabinoids, endocannabinoid receptors, and enzymes.

Endocannabinoids (eCB)

Endocannabinoids, aka endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules produced by your body and act as messengers, similar to the way neurotransmitters like dopamine or serotonin are messengers to your nervous system. These messengers are akin to cannabinoids, except they’re naturally created within your body. They’re made from lipids (fats or oils), thus making them fat-soluble. This is why most hemp extracts are infused with an oil base. For example, Dr.Tom’s tinctures are infused with MCT coconut oil, which ensures the cannabinoids get exactly where they need to go in your body.

There are 2 main eCBs moving throughout your body - Anandamide and 2-ArachidonoylGlycerol (2-AG). Your body produces these eCBs as needed (making it difficult to determine ‘normal’ levels). 


Anandamide gets its name comes from Sanskrit origins of ananda, which means “joy, bliss, and delight”. Runner’s high? Thank anandamide. This molecule is related to appetite, memory, pain relief, pregnancy, and more. Scientists are still learning about this molecule, but it has been surmised that it is an integral part of the ECS.

2-ArachidonoylGlycerol (2-AG)

The name is certainly a mouthful, but it has recently been found to be just as important as it’s counterpart, anandamide. So far 2-AG has been associated with heart health/cardiovascular health, emotional states and wellbeing, and seizures (more-so, protection from seizures).

Endocannabinoid Receptors

Endocannabinoid receptors are found all throughout your body and inform the ECS when to spring into action. Each cell is guarded by a receptor, waiting for the right eCB to come along. The result will depend on which eCB binds to the receptor, but the impact will be on mood, the immune system, sensations (such as pain relief), or even your state of mind or consciousness. There are 2 main endocannabinoid receptors - CB1 and CB2.

CB1 Receptors

CB1 receptors are mainly in the central nervous system, and contribute to a healthy brain. CB1 receptors contribute to mood, memory, motor function, and pain perception. This is the receptor responsible for psychoactive effects as well. THC brownie made you high? That’s the handiwork of THC binding to a CB1 receptor. Nerve pain in your back? To combat this, eCBs will bind to a CB1 receptor in your spine for pain relief.

You can find smaller amounts of CB1 receptors outside of the central nervous system, which are related to things like digestion, hormones, and cardiovascular health.

CB2 Receptors

CB2 receptors call the immune system home, and take care of inflammation and our immunity. If your body is experiencing inflammation related to an autoimmune disease, eCBs will bind to CB2 receptors to signal this. If you’re using hemp/cannabis to combat arthritis in your hand, you can thank your CB2 receptors for giving you back your typing abilities. Or writing abilities, we don’t judge.


Enzymes are responsible for breaking down fats and turning them into eCBs (anandamide and 2-AG). Enzymes are also responsible for breaking down eCBs once they’ve carried out their functions. In relation to the ECS there are 2 important enzymes: fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol acid lipase (MAGL). FAAH is responsible for breaking down anandamide, and MAGL breaks down 2AG.

What does this have to do with CBD? As far as scientists can tell, CBD does not bind to a specific receptor like anandamide, 2-AG, and THC. Instead, CBD occupies enzymes and inhibits them from breaking down eCBs; thus allowing them to have a greater effect on your body. The details of this are still being heavily researched and debated, but we can infer CBD greatly affects the ECS and lends a hand in keeping your body running smoothly by allowing eCBs to function longer. 

The ECS, eCBs, Endocannabinoid Receptors - What Does All of This Mean?

I’m glad you asked. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ECS. It was discovered 30 years ago, and scientists are learning more about it each day. One thing everyone seems to agree on is there are a lot of moving parts, and the ECS can be thrown out of whack pretty easily. We live in a modern age of stress, poor diet, lack of exercise, etc. Any of these things can have a negative effect on the ECS.

Some scientists have come up with a theory called CECD (clinical endocannabinoid deficiency) which would explain some autoimmune issues which have no proven underlying causes (think irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraines, etc). The theory is these issues are partly caused by low eCB levels in your body, or a dysfunctioning ECS system. This would also explain why no cure has yet been found for diseases such as these.

So, CBD Helps the Endocannabinoid System. What now?

Great question. As I’ve said, more research is needed. However, many believe supplementing with CBD/hemp products to keep your ECS system running smoothly is the key to optimal health and wellness in your body.

Because the ECS is expansive and specific to each individual, self-experimentation is necessary to find what works for you. A tincture which pairs naturally occurring CBDs with a healthy lipid such as MCT oil can positively impact your ECS by rebalancing it. However, you will need to invest some time in experimentation to find what works best for you on your journey to optimal health and wellness. 

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