The human body is pretty amazing. It has numerous systems to help keep you healthy and ensure optimal function. One such system in your body that wasn’t discovered until the late 1980s/early 1990s is the cannabinoid (endocannabinoid) system. It’s a system within your body that helps to maintain internal balance. What exactly is the cannabinoid system, though, and why do we have it?

 Cannabis infograph

What Is the Cannabinoid System?

The cannabinoid system is a system within your body that works to maintain homeostasis or balance. It’s a cell-signaling system that researchers discovered in the 1980s/1990s when they were exploring the effects of THC. It’s comprised of endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors, and enzymes that help to regulate various functions throughout your body. 

What the Cannabinoid System Does

So, what exactly does the cannabinoid system do? While scientists are still working to uncover all of this internal system’s mysteries, we do know that it plays a role in regulating various functions, including:

  • Mood
  • Stress
  • Appetite
  • Sleep
  • Learning and memory
  • Immune function
  • Pain and inflammation
  • Fertility and reproduction
  • Cardiovascular system function

Endocannabinoid Deficiency

Some researchers believe in what’s known as endocannabinoid deficiency. Right now, it’s a theory that suggests low levels of endocannabinoids in your body may contribute to the development of various chronic health conditions. An article written in 2016 states that this could be the reason why people develop IBS, fibromyalgia, and other conditions that seemingly have no cause. 

How Does the Cannabinoid System Work?

The cannabinoid system has three main components, endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes. Each component works together to help restore and maintain balance.


Endocannabinoids are cannabinoids that your body makes. So far, we know that the human body makes two, anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG). Your body produces them on demand. When your body senses something out of balance, it produces the necessary endocannabinoids. These compounds then travel to the appropriate cannabinoid receptors to restore your internal homeostasis. 

Cannabinoid Receptors

Your body has cannabinoid (CB) receptors located throughout your body. You have two types:

  • CB1 receptors exist mainly in your central nervous system 
  • CB2 receptors reside in your peripheral nervous system and your immune cells

Both endocannabinoids can bind with either type of receptor depending upon the needs of your body. For instance, they may bind with CB1 receptors in your spine if you’re experiencing pain. At another point, they may bind with CB2 receptors in your immune cells to help combat inflammation. 


Your body also produces special enzymes that help break down the endocannabinoids once they’ve completed their functions. Fatty acid amide hydrolase breaks down anandamide and monoacylglycerol acid lipase breaks down 2-AG. 

How Cannabinoids Work with the Cannabinoid System

Cannabis has more than 120 known cannabinoids. When you smoke, vape, or eat a cannabis product, these cannabinoids travel into your bloodstream and travel throughout your body. 

Like endocannabinoids, cannabinoids attach to the CB receptors in your brain and other parts of your body to produce a variety of effects. Some cannabinoids prefer certain receptors. For instance, THC has an affinity for CB1 receptors. Other cannabinoids, namely CBD, don’t have an affinity for either receptor. Instead, they interact indirectly with the cannabinoid system to help restore balance.

While some people enjoy cannabis purely for recreational purposes, others use it to help alleviate symptoms of pain and other medical conditions. Cannabinoids in the plant mimic your body’s natural endocannabinoids, binding with receptors in the body to help provide relief. More research is needed to get a better understanding of how the system works, but what we’re learning provides us with a substantial amount of insight.