The endo-cannabinoid system within us

The endo-cannabinoid system within us

Published: 18.04.2023 (Updated: 14.07.2023)
Reading time: Min.
Dr. Harald Stephan
Dr. rer. medic. Harald Stephan
Health expert

The endocannabinoid system of the human organism

Before we turn to the endocannabinoid system in detail, it makes sense to first explain what cannabinoids are. These substances are pharmacologically active and psychoactive components of the hemp plant (Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa). Science has discovered over 126 different cannabinoids to date. Many of them are still too little researched to know all their effects. The situation is somewhat different for the two best-known cannabinoids, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD was discovered in 1940 and chemically synthesised for the first time in 1963. It has shown pharmacological effects in numerous studies. THC, on the other hand, was identified in 1964 and, like CBD, also showed pharmacological effects, but much less so than CBD. When these two main active ingredients are used together, they can complement each other in what is known as the entourage effect, in which their effects reinforce each other.

How researchers discovered the endocannabinoid system

In 1992, a team of researchers at the National Institute for Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, discovered the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Since then, systematic research into cannabis and its active ingredients has expanded enormously and revealed many new perspectives for medical and therapeutic use.

The team around William Devane, Dr. Lumir Hanus and Raphael Mechoulam knew that cannabinoids trigger an effect in the human organism. This in turn meant that there had to be a system in the body that recognised the cannabinoids and to which they could dock. Accordingly, there had to be endogenous molecules for these receptors. The researchers were actually able to detect these molecules a short time later. After the discovery, they gave the molecules the name endocannabinoids (endo is the abbreviation of endogenous for "produced by the body"). One can also say in a simplified way: The human organism does not only react to cannabinoids that are supplied to it from the outside, but also produces its own.

Even though much is still unexplored, one fact is certain: the endocannabinoid system is an important regulator of the immune and nervous systems and is responsible for many psychological, physical and healing effects triggered by cannabis products in our organism. In the form of diverse studies, new forms of application for cannabis products are still being developed every day.

The endocannabinoid system in detail

The endocannabinoid system consists of three essential components:

  • Endocannabinoids
  • Cannabinoid receptors
  • Metabolic enzymes


Endocannabinoids are molecules produced by the body itself and are surprisingly similar to the plant (or phyto-) cannabinoids THC and CBD in structure and chemical composition. The two most important endocannabinoids are called anandamide (derived from the Sanskrit word "ananda" for "bliss") and 2-arachidonylglycerol (referred to as 2-AG for short). These are fat-like molecules. They are produced by our organism when it needs them.

Cannabinoid receptors

As mentioned earlier, the endocannabinoid system is part of both the nervous and immune systems. The receptors in both systems are the receivers of the electrical impulses and consist of natural molecules and corresponding signal transducers, the so-called "intracellular signal transducers". In the following, we would like to briefly describe the two most important receptors; CB1 and CB2.

The cannabinoid receptor CB1 is located on the cells of the nervous system, predominantly in the cerebellum. The receptor CB2 is responsible for the immune system, but is also found on cells responsible for bone formation and degradation, among other things.

CB1 receptors are predominantly found on nerve centres that control memory, the regulation of appetite and hunger sensations, and the processing of emotions. CB2 sits on immune cells and provides an anti-inflammatory response when the immune or nervous system is attacked. Research suggests that CB2 receptors play a major role in the immune system and its ability to respond to various diseases.

Metabolic enzymes

These enzymes help to break down the endocannabinoids once their task has been completed. For example, the enzyme FAAH is responsible for the degradation of anandamide, and the enzyme MAGL for 2-AG.

Why plant cannabinoids affect the body

Herbal cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are so similar to endocannabinoids that, like the body's own cannabinoids, they dock onto our receptors and can thus interact with our organism. They act in our organism in different ways. Their possible applications are increasingly the focus of today's research. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any further questions.

Dr. Harald Stephan
Dr. rer. medic. Harald Stephan
Graduate Biologist, Medical Information Processing Officer and Doctor of Health Sciences
About the author

After studying in Saarbrücken, Dr Harald Stephan worked in research and teaching at the Universities of Marburg and Bochum as well as at the University Hospital in Essen before becoming a self-employed publicist in 2016. He sees acquiring and passing on knowledge as his life's work.

In addition to his publications on cell biology and tumour research in renowned specialist journals, hundreds of his articles on health topics can be found on the internet. In them, he explains the causes of diseases, laboratory values, diagnoses as well as traditional and novel therapy options.