Medical Cannabis and the Endocannabinoid System

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
May 31, 2022
Last updated:
Sep 22, 2023

Many countries have legalised medical cannabis, Australia among them, and many Australians are now using cannabis to manage their health.

But have you ever wondered why cannabis as medicine affects us the way it does? Why does this particular plant have the ability to benefit the human body?

The answer is: the endocannabinoid system. The chemicals in cannabis affect your body’s endocannabinoid system, which in turn affects certain bodily functions.

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system was first discovered in 1992 by a team of researchers led by chemist Raphael Mechoulam, who is known as the “father of cannabis research.” Mechoulam’s previous research on cannabis built the foundation for this groundbreaking discovery.

The endocannabinoid system is a network of receptors and chemicals that exists in every human body. It’s made up of three parts: endocannabinoids, endocannabinoid receptors, and enzymes.


Endocannabinoids are molecules made by your body as needed.  

Scientists have identified two key endocannabinoids:

  • Anandamide (AEA)
  • 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)

Endocannabinoids bind to endocannabinoid receptors, which in turn send “signals” to your body, affecting various tissues and functions.

Endocannabinoid Receptors

Experts have identified two main endocannabinoid receptors:

  • CB1 receptors, mostly found in the central nervous system
  • CB2 receptors, mostly found in your peripheral nervous system and immune cells

Endocannabinoids like AEA and 2-AG can bind to either receptor.


Enzymes break down endocannabinoids once they’ve fulfilled their function.

How Does Cannabis Work with the Endocannabinoid System?

The reason medical cannabis affects your body is because of your endocannabinoid system.

Cannabis contains cannabinoids, which are naturally occurring chemical compounds. Like your body’s own endocannabinoids, these cannabinoids bind to your endocannabinoid receptors.

In turn, your endocannabinoid receptors bring about certain changes in your body.

Different cannabinoids interact with your endocannabinoid system in different ways. Take tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for example. This cannabinoid creates a high, and it can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors. Because it gets along with both receptors, it may be why THC seems to produce such a wide range of effects.

Cannabidiol (CBD), on the other hand, only weakly binds to those receptors. It’s not entirely clear how CBD affects the endocannabinoid system: Some believe it could prevent endocannabinoids from being broken down by enzymes, while others argue that it binds to another receptor that hasn’t yet been identified.

What Conditions and Symptoms Are Managed by the Endocannabinoid System?

A recent article in the Harvard Medical Blog labelled the endocannabinoid system as “mysterious and essential.” This is an accurate description.

Although we don’t yet know everything there is to know about the endocannabinoid system, we do know it’s critical.

So far, research has suggested that the endocannabinoid system plays a role in the following processes:

  • Cardiovascular system function
  • Chronic pain
  • Digestive system function
  • Immune system responses
  • Inflammation
  • Learning, concentration, and memory
  • Liver function
  • Metabolism
  • Mood
  • Motor control
  • Muscle formation
  • Nerve function
  • Reproductive system function
  • Skin
  • Sleep
  • Stress responses

In other words, the endocannabinoid system affects almost every part of your physical and mental well-being.

The endocannabinoid system’s primary job is maintaining homeostasis, which is a state of healthy internal balance. When something affects your homeostasis—say, an infection—your body will work to fight the infection and return itself to its ideal balance.

The endocannabinoid system helps regulate certain functions so your body can stay in balance.

Accessing Medical Cannabis in Australia

Your endocannabinoid system is what makes the effects of medical cannabis possible. If you think your chronic condition might benefit from a medical cannabis prescription, book a consultation with a doctor at a medical cannabis clinic or your local GP.

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