Understanding Your Endocannabinoid System

May 23, 2019

Understanding Your Endocannabinoid System

Dr. Jonathan Simone, Ph.D.


Have you ever wondered how your medical cannabis works to provide you relief from your condition? What exactly is this plant doing when it enters your body? The answer lies in a network of chemical messengers and receptors that are inside your brain and body, known as the endogenous cannabinoid system (or endocannabinoid system, for short). 

If you haven’t guessed already, the endocannabinoid system was named for its ability to interact with cannabis, and more specifically, the chemicals produced by the cannabis plant, named cannabinoids. You are likely familiar with THC, the most well-known and well-studied of the cannabinoids. But how does a single chemical such as THC provide such wide-ranging effects, from reducing pain and inflammation to producing feelings of euphoria and altering perception? The answer lies in THC’s ability to interact with your endocannabinoid system.

What is THC doing When it Enters your Body?

When THC enters the body, it activates the endocannabinoid system by physically binding (connecting) to cannabinoid receptors. If you think of a lock and key, THC would be the key, and the receptors in your body are the lock. Cannabinoid receptors are located throughout the human brain and body and serve as gatekeepers of communication between cells. Your body is made up of several trillion cells, and they all need to work together to ensure healthy and normal functioning. When THC binds to and activates these receptors (think of a key opening a lock), it changes how the cells communicate with one another. 

The Human Body Creates its Own Cannabinoid-like Molecules

These receptors, however, don’t exist to respond only to cannabinoids like THC. The human body creates its own cannabinoid-like molecules (called endocannabinoids) that participate in virtually all parts of human physiology and behavior, from basic functions such as the regulation of hormonal and immune responses, to more complex cognitive processes such as the regulation of mood and emotion. The specific way endocannabinoids work is quite complex, but in general terms it can be thought of as a biological thermostat, ensuring that the different tissues and organs throughout the body are working together and within appropriate ranges (in the scientific world, we call this “maintaining homeostasis”). In certain medical conditions, the endocannabinoid system may not be working as it should (the system can be under-active, for instance). In these instances, consuming cannabis or cannabis-based medicines can act to restore the normal functioning of the endocannabinoid system, leading to symptom improvement and relief.  

While the scientific world has made great advances in our understanding of the endocannabinoid system over the last 30 years, there is still much to learn. A more complete understanding of how cannabis and the endocannabinoid system work together is key to the advancement of cannabis-based medicines and to our ability to ensure the highest quality of care for medical cannabis patients in Canada and around the world.

Here at Aphria, we are committed to furthering the science of medical cannabis by supporting research into endocannabinoid biology and pharmacology.