ECS 101: Breaking Down the Endocannabinoid System

If you’ve engaged in any dialogue about CBD, you’ve probably heard it a million times: everybody’s got an endocannabinoid system. But what exactly does that mean? 

Your endocannabinoid system is one of the largest neurotransmitter networks in the body. It’s an active system even if you’ve never used cannabis - it serves to help promote health and wellness in your body and regulate your physiology, mood, and everyday experience. All vertebrate mammals have an endocannabinoid system, which essentially means all mammal bodies are naturally wired to make use of cannabinoids in maintaining equilibrium within various bodily processes.  

Conceptualizing the endocannabinoid system breaks down into understanding three key components:

  • Cannabinoid receptors
  • Endocannabinoids and Phytocannabinoids
  • Enzymes

These components work very closely together to work their magic and do their job of maintaining balance and overall wellness. Let’s take a look at how each component functions and the way they all come together. 


Cannabinoid Receptors

First, let’s start with the cannabinoid receptors, primarily CB1 and CB2. These receptors are found throughout your brain and body. CB1 receptors are located within your central nervous system, brain, and spinal cord. CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are located in the peripheral nervous system, brain, immune system, and gut.

There are other types of receptors that play a role in processes of the endocannabinoid system, but these two are the primary players we want to come to know and love in ECS 101.

To understand the way cannabinoid receptors work, it’s helpful to visualize a lock and key. In this scenario, the cannabinoid receptors throughout your body serve as the “lock.” Signaling molecules like endocannabinoids, synthetic cannabinoids, and phytocannabinoids are to directly or indirectly bind with these receptors like a key and “unlock” different bodily processes as a result. 



Endocannabinoids are cannabinoids that are produced within the body. There are two primary endocannabinoids: Anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG). AEA is a partial agonist to CB1 and CB2, and is similar to THC. 2-AG is a full agonist to CB1 and CB2, which means that it’s a signalling molecule with a natural affinity for certain receptors. In the simplest terms, it’s the key that fits the lock.

  • Agonist - binds to a receptor and produces an effect within a cell
  • Antagonist - may or may not fully bind to a receptor, but blocks the receptor from binding with another agonist

Phytocannabinoids, on the other hand, are cannabinoids that are found within plants. While there have been over 110+ phytocannabinoids discovered in the cannabis plant, there are six “main” phytocannabinoids that a majority of scientific research has concentrated on: THC, CBD, CBG, CBN, CBC, and THCV. We also frequently discuss another cannabinoid called CBDA as it makes an appearance in several Bluebird products and plays an interesting role in the endocannabinoid system. 

For our purposes of understanding the ECS, however, here are a couple of key points about phytocannabinoids to keep in mind:

  • THC is an AEA mimetic, meaning it is a partial CB1 and CB2 agonist and acts similarly to endocannabinoid AEA
  • CBD does NOT bind directly to receptors but rather modulates receptor activity
  • CBDA or “raw CBD,” which interacts primarily with other enzymes

Related Article: What Are Cannabinoids and What Do They Do?


Metabolic enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their function.

There are two main enzymes responsible for this:

  • Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down anandamide
  • monoacylglycerol acid lipase (MAGL), which breaks down 2-AG

These enzymes are responsible for ensuring that after the body has used its endocannabinoids efficiently, they don’t hang around longer than needed. However, when your endocannabinoid system is out of balance, sometimes it’s necessary for these enzymes to be inhibited so that your endocannabinoids can stick around a little longer to do their jobs. That’s where CBD comes in! CBD doesn’t directly bind to receptors but it does act as an inhibitor to FAAH and thus slows the breakdown of other cannabinoids in the bloodstream.

Still have questions about CBD? Check out our free guide, Finding Success with CBD, to learn more.