The range of effects cannabis can produce in our bodies isn’t so mysterious when you understand how the endocannabinoid system works. Responsible for a lot of the body’s processes and functions, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is made up of endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors and enzymes, which are all thought to be involved when your body processes the plant cannabinoids found in cannabis. Here’s a closer look at what happens in your body when you consume cannabis.
What is the endocannabinoid system?
The endocannabinoid system is a complex cell-signalling system — in which cells communicate with one another — that plays a crucial role in regulating and balancing various processes in your body. Because of how influential the endocannabinoid system is, it makes sense that cannabis produces such a large range of effects.
Both cannabis plants and people have chemical compounds in our systems called cannabinoids. In humans, they’re called endocannabinoids. In plants, they’re phytocannabinoids. The cannabis plant has many cannabinoids, of which the two best known and studied are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
THC is responsible for the way your brain and body respond to consuming cannabis, including the majority of the psychoactive effect, or “high,” you may feel.
Unlike THC, CBD is thought to be non-intoxicating. Researchers are looking at how CBD works in tandem with THC and the minor cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids in cannabis to produce effects in the body — referred to as the “entourage effect.”
How does the endocannabinoid system work?
Humans produce cannabinoids internally through the body’s endocannabinoid system. Studies suggest the ECS plays a role in regulating stress recovery, nervous system protection, immune system response and homeostatic balance (our overall state of optimal health function and stability). Our endocannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors all over the body and brain to help regulate those functions.
The endocannabinoid system has three main components: endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors, and enzymes that process and break down endocannabinoids.
Endocannabinoids are molecules produced by our bodies that interact with cannabinoid receptors in the ECS. They play a crucial role in regulating processes such as mood, appetite and sensation. They also interact with neurotransmitters such as dopamine (known as one of the “feel-good” hormones). The body’s two main endocannabinoids are:
- anandamide (also known as AEA or arachidonoylethanolamide)
- 2-arachidonoylglycerol (or 2-AG)
Humans have two types of receptors:
- CB1 receptors, primarily located in the central nervous system, which includes brain functions relating to motor control, cognition and emotional response
- CB2 receptors, found primarily in the immune system and certain organs, such as the liver and spleen
Enzymes facilitate certain chemical reactions in the body. In the ECS, once the endocannabinoids have performed their function, certain metabolic enzymes are responsible for breaking them down. There are two enzymes involved in breaking down endocannabinoids:
- fatty acid amide hydrolase (which breaks down AEA)
- monoacylglycerol acid lipase (which breaks down 2-AG)
What does the ECS do?
The endocannabinoid system is responsible for more than processing cannabis. Research shows that the ECS can help the body maintain balance, or homeostasis, in response to changes in the environment, such as stress, injury or disease. It also may regulate a range of functions and processes in the body, including:
- motor control
- appetite and digestion
- pain control
- inflammation and other immune system responses
- brain function, such as learning and memory
How does the ECS respond when cannabis is consumed?
When you consume cannabis, the cannabinoids in the plant, including THC and CBD, can interact with your cannabinoid receptor sites in the same way your own endocannabinoids do. It is because many of those receptor sites are located in the central nervous system that cannabis is likely to produce changes to your cognitive and physical states.
Everyone’s physiological makeup is different, and the location and number of ECS receptors can vary from person to person. That’s why the same strain of cannabis can affect people in different ways.
Additional factors that contribute to the potential differences in effects can also include your:
- genetics, sex and age
- current health and personality
- previous experience with cannabis
The consumption method will also play a factor. Inhalation produces a faster onset of effects, because the cannabinoids quickly move from the lungs to the bloodstream and on to the brain. Ingestion, meanwhile, will have slower onset but longer lasting effects, due to the time it takes for the cannabinoids to pass through the digestive system and liver.
Being aware of this unique interaction between cannabis and the human body’s endocannabinoid system — as well as the method of consumption and how much THC and CBD is in the product — is helpful in understanding how to make the right choice for you.