HOW CANNABIS WORKS – A Rudimentary Look At The Endocannabinoid System

Before we get started, this article has its very own video counterpart, so if a video presentation on this topic appeals to you more then you’re in luck! Otherwise read on…

Cannabis has been used as a medicinal herb for a very long time indeed. A great deal of wisdom has amassed in numerous cultures about its multitude of therapeutic benefits, yet how it actually takes effect on a cellular level is something that has been apprehended only recently.

In the mid-1960’s, Israeli scientist Dr Raphael Mechoulam discovered tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive constituent in Cannabis. This was a truly monumental discovery, yet at the same time it only marked science’s entry point into the vast and complex microcosm of marijuana.

Dr Raphael Mechoulam with the THC molecule.

The surface had only just been scratched on how Cannabis works, why it has such an affinity with the human body & mind and how it possesses such an enormous number of potential health benefits. THC was identified, isolated and tested but it took another two decades to figure out exactly how it takes effect when we consume it. Eventually in the mid-1980’s a cell receptor for THC was discovered in the brain and central nervous system and it was called CB1: Cannabinoid receptor number 1.

But the question remained: “Why is there a receptor in the brain specifically for receiving the THC compound in Cannabis?” Naturally this led to a variety of other questions that needed answering, the first of which was: “Could the CB1 receptor primarily exist for accepting other chemicals that are naturally present in our bodies?” So the parameters of the research expanded from only studying the cannabinoids in marijuana to include cannabinoid-like compounds produced within the human body itself that also acted on the CB1 receptor. The search had begun for ‘endocannabinoids’.

The first endocannabinoid that found to bind to the CB1 receptor was a neurotransmitter called Anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word ‘ananda’, which means ‘bliss’. So anandamide was also know as the ‘bliss compound’ because of the effect it has on the mind as a mood enhancer by stimulating sensations of joy and happiness. Anandamide doesn’t have the same chemical structure as THC but it does bind to the CB1 receptor and exhibit exactly the same effects as THC, albeit in a much smaller concentration.

Anandamide & the central nervous system

Eventually a second receptor was found called the CB2 receptor which unlike CB1 isn’t as abundant in the brain but is actually in a much higher concentration in the periphery of the body & it has a particular affinity with the immune system – being found within the membrane of immune cells and densely located in immune-related tissues & organs.

It’s not just THC that acts on these two receptors though – there are many different cannabinoids in cannabis that have an effect either directly or indirectly through these 2 receptors. Cannabidiol (CBD) and Cannabinol (CBN) are two other well known cannabinoids, and more of the body’s own endocannabinoids are being discovered as time passes. Anandamide and 2-AG (Arachidonoylglycerol) are just two of many.


At the time of writing, CB1 & CB2 are the 2 definitive receptors of the endocannabinoid system of our bodies, although in reality there is still a vast amount of research yet to be done on the 100 or so other phyto-cannabinoids in the plant and the numerous self-produced chemicals in the body that have the same effect. It’s likely that there are many more receptors & more endocannabinoids yet to be found, and our understanding of the endocannabinoid system will evolve over time.

We do know quite a lot already though – we know that the endocannabinoid system is one of the biggest contributing factors to homeostasis – when we look at the dictionary definition of homeostasis it says:


Homeostasis is a systemic force where our organs, tissues and various bodily systems all work synergistically to find a dynamic state of balance. It’s the body & mind’s innate ability to always find the point of balance no matter what situation we’re in. It’s our ability to respond stress in a low impact, sustainable way and protect ourselves from disease as well as heal faster if & when we do become sick or injured. It’s basically like a collective thermostat for every interconnected system of the body & mind.

In the modern world today it’s no secret that we are facing an unprecedented degree of chronic stress that consistently erodes our ability to adapt and respond to stress in a healthy and harmonious way. We struggle to achieve homeostasis and we become exhausted, drained, and can develop a number of possible health challenges because of that.

Endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG are integral to our mental function, stress management, immune system and our general capacity to achieve homeostasis, but through stress, toxicity and poor diet & lifestyle choices. The possibility of developing an endocannabinoid deficiency can present itself. In other words, the function of our endocannabinoid system can become impaired and lose stability. This is why supplementing with medical marijuana can be very beneficial, because responsible, strategic use can support the homeostatic process.

The endocannabinoid system is an organic infrastructure that enables us to fully utilise the constituents in cannabis – the plant contains a spectrum of bio-identical compounds that match ones produced by our own body, which is why conscientiously cultivated strains have the potential to offer so many legitimate health benefits.


For example, when THC plugs into the endocannabinoid system it can act offer supreme pain relief – THC can modulate neurological function to reduce pain signals being sent to the brain from elsewhere in the body. It can also cause malignant cell apoptosis (programmed cell death within tumours) and is chemo-protective so it can protect the integrity of healthy cells when the body is exposed to radiation treatment. THC can dramatically reduce common symptoms of chemotherapy like vomiting, exhaustion and loss of appetite.

THC can also offer symptomatic relief to those suffering from respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic bronchitis and it has shown very powerful results in reducing and in many cases even eradicating seizures in those suffering with epilepsy. THC can support our circadian rhythm and help to reverse sleep-disorders like insomnia and sleep apnoea, as well as providing relief for people suffering with PTSD, and it acts as a general antidepressant when used responsibly.

CBD on the other hand is a potent antioxidant and an excellent anxiolytic, which means it reduces anxiety, agitation and panic attacks and encourages a more relaxed and stable mental state. This makes it the perfect complement to THC which is otherwise more cerebrally stimulating. Although CBD isn’t psychoactive at all it is more of a sedative than THC, so it can be great for interrupting repetitive, obsessive behaviour. Also, like THC, CBD offers significant anti-cancer benefits.

Cannabinol (CBN) is another cannabinoid in marijuana that offers yet more pain relief and anti-epileptic benefits, plus it lowers pressure build up within the eyes and is a viable natural treatment for glaucoma.

Cannabichromene (CBC) is a cannabinoid that works as a support mechanism for THC and generally consolidates its effects, whereas Cannabigerol (CBG) is an anti-inflammatory compound that like CBD has more sedative properties.

This is really just a passing glance at a small number of the cannabinoids that are in the cannabis plant. It’s important that we can examine the benefits of these cannabinoids separately, but the truth is that all of the cannabinoids in marijuana, just like the endocannabinoids produced by our own bodies – have an interconnected and interdependent relationship with each other. Some of them are present in only minute amounts and may appear to do very little or perhaps even nothing at all on their own, but when we view them in a more collective & holistic context, we can see that many of these compounds enhance the overall medicinal effect & regulate and moderate one another, which is largely why the endocannabinoid system is so integral to homeostasis.

Aside from cannabinoids, cannabis is a rich source of terpenes that interact with the plant cannabinoids and have an indirect yet very significant influence on the healthy functioning of our endocannabinoid system.


So while we are considering cannabis as a medicine rather than solely a recreational drug, it is very important that we take into account the cultivation of the plants and the methods by which the medication is prepared. Plants should be grown organically with full consideration given to each particular strain and the specific constituents they possess. Medicines need to be prepared appropriately to ensure the bioavailability of constituents, and administered correctly according to the desired outcome, which will obviously vary from person to person. Buying anything you can find from someone stood on a street corner is highly unlikely to deliver optimal results tailored to your individual needs.

But then this leads us to ask the question: “Why are so many people forced to buy sub-standard cannabis from strangers on the street?” The answer is complex & multifaceted, but the foundation of this answer is simple – cannabis is generally illegal because it perfectly mimics chemicals produced within our bodies that are vital to health and homeostasis. Admitting that Cannabis is generally safe and offers legitimate medical benefits when used strategically & responsibly would be utterly devastating to the pharmaceutical industry.

Unfortunately for now, we have to endure yet more distorted corporate propaganda that denies decades of conclusive scientific research & insists that cannabis is simply a ‘gateway drug’ that leads to heroin & amphetamine use and turns you into a criminal. The tide of social acceptance around medical cannabis is most definitely turning, although patience & diligence are absolute prerequisites to a more enlightened legislation on this deeply misunderstood medicine.


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