How Medical Cannabis Affects the Mind and Body: The Endocannabinoid System

Posted on March 10, 2018

While there is increasing clinical evidence of the medicinal benefits of cannabis , it is important to understand how it can have positive physiological and psychological benefits.

Cannabis affects the human body through the endocannabinoid system (ECS) which is a communications system which operates throughout the body, with the highest concentration in the brain.

The ECS is made up of cannabinoids – whether naturally occuring in our bodies or from medical cannabis – which bind to receptors to communicate to the body that it should take a particular action. These cannabinoids are then broken down by enzymes after a short period.

First and foremost, a cannabinoid is a type of chemical compound which acts on cannabinoid receptors, communicating particular responses to cells which have these receptors. Our bodies naturally produce ‘endocannabinoids’ which bind to ECS receptors. However, ‘phytocannabinoids’ – cannabinoids which occur naturally in the cannabis plant (such as THC and CBD) – can also bind with ECS receptors (Greydanus & Merrick 2016).

In effect, the ECS is a communication system in our bodies: cannabinoids, whether those produced by our bodies (‘endocannabinoids’) or those we consume from medical cannabis (‘phytocannabinoids’), bind to receptors in the ECS to tell the part of the body tied to the receptor to act in a particular way. The result of these communications include managing mood, pain perception, appetite, regulating immune systems and actually forming thoughts (Dowsett et al 2017; Sadhir 2016; Nahtigal et al 2016).

The endocannabinoid system activates when the body deviates from homeostasis (the process which maintains the internal stability in the body amid changes in external conditions). Endocannabinoids are then created to bind to receptors (such as ‘CB1’ and ‘CB2’) in parts of the body which are ‘out of balance’. Once these cannabinoids bind, they communicate to the part of the body tied to the receptor to take a particular action to restore balance (Di Marzo et al 2004).

While the endocannabinoid system is connected to several important processes and concentrated in the brain, reproductive organs, and nervous system, it does not affect parts of the brain which govern heart and lung functions, which is one the primary reasons why there are no fatal overdoses of cannabinoids (Sadhir 2016).

Phytocannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, can also bind with ECS receptors, and that is how medical cannabis can have positive effects in addressing the symptoms of anxiety, pain, seizures, sleeplessness, and much more.

Keep an eye on this blog for future posts on medical cannabis and the endocannabinoid system, including its history, its vast medicinal potential, and how particular phytocannabinoids can be used to treat various conditions.

As always, the Patient Educators at Hello Cannabis are ready to answer any questions you have about the ECS, medical cannabis, and how to safely and legally access it.



Di Marzo, V. et al. 2004. The endocannabinoid system and its therapeutic exploitation. Nature reviews Drug discovery, 3(9), 771-784.

Dowsett, L.E. et al. 2017. Cannabis Evidence Series: An Evidence Synthesis. Calgary: Government of Alberta.

Greydanus, D.E., & Merrick, J. 2016. Cannabis or marijuana: A review. Journal of Pain Management, 9(4), 347-373.

Nahtigal et al. 2016. The pharmacological properties of Cannabis. Journal of Pain Management, 9(4), 481-491.

Sadhir. 2016. Pharmacology of Cannabis. Journal of Pain Management, 9(4), 375-379.