The Endogenous Cannabinoid System

Learn about the body’s endogenous cannabinoid system and the changes it makes at cellular level when cannabis is introduced.

The natural cannabinoids of cannabis, in particular THC, act on the human organism in a way that is similar to the endocannabinoids, endogenous substances that carry out a multitude of functions in the human body. These endocannabinoids (from the Greek endo, which means “inner”), or endogenous cannabinoids, are found not only in human beings but also another vertebrates (mammals and birds) and in a great number of primitive animals. THC, like the endocannabinoids, connects to specific sites present on the surface of numerous cells, which then sets in motion its effects. These sites are called cannabinoid receptors. Together, the endocannabinoids, the enzymes, and the cannabinoid receptors form the endogenous cannabinoid systems, which plays an important role in the regulation of appetite and in the perception of sensory information or information relating to pain, as well as movement coordination.

Other natural cannabinoids present various action mechanisms.

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Cannabinoid Receptors

It was demonstrated for the first time in 1987 that most of the effects attributed to the cannabinoids get conducted through their connection to specific receptors. These cannabinoid receptors are mainly located on the membranes of brain cells and in the spinal marrow. They are also present in cells of the heart, the intestines, the lungs, the skin, the urinary tract, the uterus, the testicles, the internal glands, the spleen, and the white blood cells. Depending on where these receptors are located, their activation will induce very different effects—for example, an inhibition of nociceptive pathways, an inhibition of inflammatory processes, a modification in the perception of time, or a feeling of euphoria or other effects in the mind.


The first endocannabinoid was discovered in 1992. It was named anandamide, from the Sanskrit ananada, meaning “supreme happiness,” and amide, designating its chemical structure. Later, other endocannabinoids were discovered, but their names are less poetic and sound more scientific, such as 2-arachidonoylglycerol and noladine ether. Today, we count around two hundred varieties of endogenous substances close to the endocannabinoids, the effects of which have mostly not yet been studied in detail. The endocannabinoids are grouped with other substances that play the role of natural messengers. They transmit information concerning the state of the organism to the brain and other organs, thus provoking reactions at a cellular level. They belong to a group of the main inhibitory neurotransmitters and play a significant role in, for example, acting as a brake on the excessive discharge of glutamate in the brain when it is subjected to a lack of oxygen supply. This is why one of the main functions attributed to the endocannabinoids is that of protecting nerve cells. Other neurotransmitters that act under the influence of the endocannabinoids include GABA, glycine, noradrenaline, serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine, as well as the neuropeptides (enkephalin and endorphin).



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