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The effect of CBD Oil on the Endocannabinoid System

Interest in CBD has never been higher. According to a team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Johns Hopkins University, the search frequency for the terms “CBD” and its full name “cannabidiol” grew by 126% between 2016 and 2017, then 160% between 2017 and 2018, and 177.7% the year after.

Unsurprisingly, with this interest comes a desire to understand how CBD oils and other products affect the human body — in particular, the endocannabinoid system.

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex biological network in the human body composed of molecules (known as endocannabinoids), receptors and enzymes. Throughout the 20th century, scientists studying the effects of cannabis suspected that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — a cannabinoid that creates the psychoactive effect associated with cannabis —  to specific sites in the brain. The theory was that THC and other cannabinoids like CBD interact with the body through undiscovered receptors. This hypothesis was confirmed in 1990 with the identification and cloning of the first cannabinoid receptor, CB1. Another receptor, CB2, would be cloned in 1993.

What Exactly Does the ECS Do?

Our understanding of the ECS continues to evolve alongside research and experiments. But what we do know is that the ECS plays a vital role in regulating the body’s endocrine functions, including:

  • Sleep 
  • Appetite
  • Mood
  • Memory
  • Fertility and pregnancy
  • Pain sensation
  • Cognitive function
  • Sleep
  • Liver function
  • Bone repair and growth 
  • Muscle development.

These processes all contribute to the body’s internal balance — homeostasis. For instance, if insomnia causes you to lose sleep, your ECS may signal your body to take a nap during the day to compensate. The ECS actively regulates these processes regardless of whether or not you use cannabis, CBD or other hemp-based products. The “endocannabinoid” name simply means that it interacts with endocannabinoids native to the body and cannabinoids found in hemp.

How Does the ECS Work?

As mentioned earlier, the ECS is composed of three components:

  1. Endocannabinoids.
  2. Receptors scattered throughout the central nervous system and the rest of the body. Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids bind with these receptors.
  3. Enzymes that accelerate chemical reactions to break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids.


Endocannabinoids (or endogenous cannabinoids) are cannabinoids native to the body. They help modulate a variety of internal functions, such as appetite, metabolism and even motivation and anxiety

The two most-studied endocannabinoids are:

  • 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG) 
  • arachidonoyl ethanolamide (anandamide).

Endocannabinoid receptors

Endocannabinoid receptors are scattered throughout the body and bind with endocannabinoids — a process that signals an ECS response. These receptors are categorised into two primary types:

  • CB1 receptors, which are concentrated in the central nervous system.
  • CB2 receptors, which are scattered throughout the peripheral nervous system.

The effect of an endocannabinoid binding with a receptor depends on the receptor’s location and the endocannabinoid that it binds with. For example, anandamide, an immune modulator, was found to alleviate neuroinflammation in rats after binding with CB2 receptors. 


Finally, you have enzymes. These are proteins that help break down endocannabinoids after binding with receptors.

How Does CBD Affect the ECS?

Studies show that most cannabinoids can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors. This is true for all endocannabinoids and some phytocannabinoids (i.e., cannabinoids from plants like cannabis) like THC. However, the same can’t be said for CBD. Research suggests that CBD has a low affinity for binding with receptors in the ECS. What it does, however, is modify the availability of cannabinoids, preventing them from breaking down sooner. This increases their likelihood of affecting your body. 

This could also mean that using CBD oil and other CBD-based products may be the key to fixing clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) — a theoretical condition that suggests that low endocannabinoid levels may contribute to poor ECS function. A 2016 review of the literature about CECD found that the condition may be a key factor behind migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and migraines — conditions with no clear underlying cause.

Bottom line? The ECS plays a critical role in supporting the healthy function of the body’s systems. However, there’s still much that scientists have yet to learn about the ECS and its relationship with cannabinoids like CBD and THC. Until then, the CBD industry will have to be careful when making health claims. 

Learn about CBD and its benefits by following the Nutrivive blog.