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What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

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You may have heard of sleep-related terms like circadian rhythm or sleep stages, but the endocannabinoid system, which is arguably less known, remains somewhat of a mystery.

Still, if these words don’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. The endocannabinoid system1 is a relatively new topic in sleep health being studied by researchers. While it may be a newer discovery, this critical system plays an essential role in sleep, immune health, and more.

Here’s everything there is to know about this important bodily system, what makes it unique, and how to ultimately optimize your endocannabinoid system so it works to its maximum potential.

What is The Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system is a vast network of chemical signals and cellular receptors densely packed throughout your brain and body.1 In fact, these receptors are so high in number that they actually outnumber many other types of receptors that can be found in your brain.

As a newly studied system, it may come as a surprise that your endocannabinoid system plays a role in almost every component of your daily functioning. Harvard Health Publishing of Harvard Medical School likens the system to a “traffic cop” that helps keep the body in line.1

Researchers continue to learn more about its impact but have determined so far that the endocannabinoid system regulates and controls learning and memory, emotional processing, sleep, temperature control, pain control, inflammatory and immune responses, and eating.1

The endocannabinoid system is made up of three main components. Here’s how they work.

Receptors

Cannabinoid receptors in the brain, also referred to as CB1 receptors, help regulate the bodily processes above by “turning up or down the activity” of any system that needs adjusting. There is a second type of cannabinoid receptor, the CB2 receptor, which is mostly found in immune tissues and helps control immune functioning, including inflammation, contraction, and pain levels.1

Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids help stimulate the receptors above, and in case the “cannabinoid” part of the name sounds familiar, that’s because these molecules have a similar structure to cannabis plants. According to Harvard Health Publishing, our brains consist of tiny cannabis-like molecules, and consuming the cannabis plant mimics their effects.1

Enzymes

The third component of the endocannabinoid system is its enzymes. These enzymes2 help produce and break down endocannabinoids, essentially keeping the cycle going strong.

What Makes Endocannabinoids Unique?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about endocannabinoids is that they’re produced on demand3 by your body. This means that whenever a bodily function needs regulating or control — such as your temperature or pain level — endocannabinoids are automatically released to help balance that function and bring it back up or down to a normal, healthy level.

The Endocannabinoid System and CBD

CBD4, or cannabidiol, is an active ingredient in cannabis. Preliminary research5 shows that CBD can enhance the endocannabinoid system, essentially improving its lifecycle.

CBD is largely considered safe in promoting healthy functioning of the endocannabinoid system. However, the relationship between the two is still being studied, and research continues today.

More: Best CBD for Sleep

The Endocannabinoid System and THC

The relationship between THC and the endocannabinoid system is more known. THC6, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the primary psychoactive component of cannabis. 

Essentially, THC has a “high affinity” for receptors in the endocannabinoid system and bonds to them easily, thus improving how well they work and function.6

Learn More: Cannabis and Sleep

Tips to Boost Your Endocannabinoid System

Researchers may still be learning about the endocannabinoid system and exactly how it works, but studies have identified these steps you can take to boost your endocannabinoid system:

  • Physical exercise – Research shows that getting exercise7 has the power to activate your endocannabinoid system, therefore strengthening it and helping it work more effectively. 
  • Leafy greens – Ongoing research has found that consuming leafy green vegetables8 can help regulate the function of endocannabinoids within your endocannabinoid system.

As research continues, more steps may be identified that could boost your endocannabinoid system. In the meantime, it’s always a good idea to maintain a healthy diet and weight, keep stress low, and get enough sleep to help support your overall health9.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was the endocannabinoid system discovered?

The endocannabinoid system was discovered in 198810 by researchers Allyn Howlett and William Devane in a government-controlled study at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

What triggers the release of endocannabinoids?

Endocannabinoids are released on demand when a bodily function, such as temperature, requires regulation (for example, if your body is too hot or too cold).3

How do endocannabinoids affect the immune system?

Endocannabinoids affect the immune system by helping to control immune functioning, which includes inflammation, contraction, and pain within your body.1

Lindsay Boyers

Lindsay Boyers

Content Writer

About Author

Ashley Zlatopolsky is a Detroit-based writer and editor who specializes in sleep content. She writes about sleep health, hygiene and products for Sleep Advisor, Mattress Clarity, Real Simple, Sleep.com and more.

Combination Sleeper

Education & Credentials

  • Certified Sleep Science Coach

    Resources

  • 1. Grinspoon, Peter. “The endocannabinoid system: essential and mysterious”. Harvard Health Publishing. 2021.
  • 2. Lu, Hui-Chen., Mackie, Ken. “An introduction to the endogenous cannabinoid system”. Biological Psychiatry. 2017.
  • 3. Kumar, Ujendra., Zou, Shenglong. “Cannabinoid receptors and the endocannabinoid system: signaling and function in the central nervous system”. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2018.
  • 4. Grinspoon, Peter. “Cannabidiol (CBD): what we know and what we don’t”. Harvard Health Publishing. 2021.
  • 5. Hall, Sean., et al. “Enhancing endocannabinoid control of stress with cannabidiol”. Journal of Clinical Medicine. 2021.
  • 6. Haney, Margaret. “Cannabis use and the endocannabinoid system: a clinical perspective”. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2022.
  • 7. Buculei, Ioana., et al. “The endocannabinoid system and physical exercise”. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2024.
  • 8. Gertsch, Jurg. “Cannabimimetic phytochemicals in the diet – an evolutionary link to food selection and metabolic stress adaptation?”. British Journal of Pharmacology. 2017.
  • 9. Song, Yiqing. “10 tips for maintaining a healthy lifestyle and body weight”. Fairbanks School of Public Health.
  • 10. Nazarenus, Christine. “The Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System”. Medical Cannabis Handbook For Healthcare Professionals. 2019.