Home Curiosity The Endocannabinoid System: How Weed Gets You High

The Endocannabinoid System: How Weed Gets You High


Most people, when they enjoy a psychoactive substance like alcohol or cannabis, don’t take the time to learn how and why their substance of choice affects them. They are happy with the knowledge that their drink or smoke will have certain desired effects.

But not you. You want to know why weed is making you high — and to understand that, you need to understand the endocannabinoid system.

What Does the Endocannabinoid System Do?

The endocannabinoid system is among the oldest systems in animal biology. Every animal studied, from insects to elephants, has an endocannabinoid system, which seems to say that the endocannabinoid system is critical for creating and sustaining animal life. Despite this, the endocannabinoid system was only discovered by human researchers in the early 1990s, which means that relatively little is understood about what this system does or how it functions.

Still, we do know some about the endocannabinoid system. For example, we know that it facilitates communication between the nervous system and other systems. We know that it plays a role in fertility, especially women’s fertility, as well as pregnancy and prenatal development. We know that the endocannabinoid system is in large part responsible for thermoregulation, or maintaining a stable core body temperature despite shifting environmental temperature. We know that this system has some role in metabolic processes, to include managing the appetite, and that it has some role in forming and storing memories. We know that the endocannabinoid system is somehow involved in pain sensation.

It will take time and intensive study to understand the endocannabinoid system to the degree that we understand, say, the respiratory system or the immune system. Fortunately, the more we know about the endocannabinoid system, the more information we have to help treat those afflicted by corresponding health conditions.

Where Is the Endocannabinoid System?

While other bodily systems are neatly contained in certain parts of the body — like the skeletal system in the bones or the digestive system in the stomach and intestines — the endocannabinoid system isn’t anywhere specific in the human body. Rather, it is everywhere.

The endocannabinoid system is comprised of a series of enzymes and receptors, which are located in different concentrations throughout the body. To date, two types of endocannabinoid receptors have been discovered: CB1 receptors, which are primarily in the central nervous system and gastrointestinal system, and CB2 receptors, which are more dispersed in the peripheral nervous system and immune system. The enzymes created by the endocannabinoid system, called endocannabinoids, bind to these receptors to stimulate different effects in the body and mind.

How Does Cannabis Interact With the Endocannabinoid System?

The cannabis plant produces unique compounds, called cannabinoids, which are not present in any other plant or animal. Scientists have discovered over 110 cannabinoids, but only a few interact with the human body — and in particular, the endocannabinoid system. Likely, you recognize the names of the most prominent cannabinoids: THC and CBD.

The structure of the molecule THC strongly resembles one of the most well-known endocannabinoids, called anandamide. The name “anandamide” comes from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means joy, bliss or delight; indeed, anandamide is strongly associated with feelings of intense pleasure when it binds with CB1 receptors in the brain. Anandamide also seems to have some effect on memory and appetite. Because THC looks so similar to anandamide, it can easily slip into the same receptors and cause the same effects.

The interaction between CBD and the endocannabinoid system is less clear. Researchers currently believe that CBD doesn’t bind to endocannabinoid receptors directly but instead influences them to produce more of certain endocannabinoids, which can result in various physiological benefits. This is perhaps why it is so important to look for a high-CBD strain from a Phoenix dispensary; CBD might temper the effects of THC, allowing for a more comfortable high.

Were it not for the in-depth study of cannabis, it is likely we still would not know about the endocannabinoid system. Given that the endocannabinoid system seems so critical to the proper function of the human body, it makes sense that a substance that influences this system — i.e. weed — would have such wide-ranging medical applications. The more we learn about cannabis, the more we learn about the endocannabinoid system, which is a win for everyone.