Why Cannabis Works Part 1: What is the Endocannabinoid System?

Since 2013, I’ve been slanging information out on this blog about using cannabis for health and wellness. I’ve shared countless cannabis recipes, told endless bad cannabis-themed dad jokes and have talked about my work as a cannabis coach

There have been over 8 million visitors on this blog to date (crazy, right?) and I like to think this site has helped some folks learn a little about this cannabis and health thing.

But this morning I woke up and realized there was a HUGE gap in the information housed on Wake + Bake. If you’ve been following this project for a while, you may have wondered:

Why does cannabis work? 

Why does it work for so many different and seemingly unrelated issues?

What is this endocannabinoid system this lady is always rattling on about?

You might have been curious as to why I go on and on (and on) about balancing cannabinoids, microdosing your cannabis or taking a t-break.

It all boils down to this one fascinating and newly discovered system in our body – the endocannabinoid system.

Now if you’re like me, you like things explained to you like you’re 5 (which is how I forced a friend to explain what a rear locking differential is yesterday). 

So I’m going to attempt to make this incredibly complicated and nuanced topic as simple as humanly possible so you know what’s going on in your body when you use cannabis.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system was discovered just 20 years ago when researchers were trying to figure out the answer to the question: why does cannabis work? 

Specifically, they wanted to know what THC was doing in our body and just stumbled on this very important system. 

That’s right. Weed helped researchers find a completely new and totally essential system in our body. Pretty cool, eh?

Here’s what they’ve found so far broken down in my elevator pitch for the endocannabinoid system.

In a nutshell, the Endocannabinoid system is the largest receptor system in your body. 

It’s comprised of 2 things: receptors and endocannabinoids (a.k.a. endogenous cannabinoids that your body makes). You heard that right. Your body makes its own cannabinoids. Which explains why humans and cannabis have been such good friends over the millennia.

The endocannabinoid system regulates so many things that are necessary for you to stay alive and to feel good while you’re living. If this system isn’t working, it could lead to chronic conditions or something even more serious. 

When you use cannabis, different phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant like CBD, CBG, and THC) interact with this system in different ways. 

For example, THC plugs into receptors in the system which is why it leads to the feeling of euphoria associated with the high of cannabis. 

CBD works differently. It helps keep your own body-made cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) circulating in your system for longer, which is why it doesn’t feel intoxicating (it’s like having more of your own good stuff).

If we didn’t have this system, cannabis probably wouldn’t make you high, reduce your anxiety or help you feel more connected to others. 

It’s why cannabis works.

In the short amount of time the EcS has been studied, we’ve already found out that this system of receptors and endocannabinoids controls things like immunity, sleep, digestion, memory, mood, and reproduction.

Science may prove later that it regulates much more than that, but that’s a pretty impressive list so far.

What happens when your endocannabinoid system isn’t healthy?

Like many of your other systems, the endocannabinoid system can get knocked out of balance because of our modern lifestyle.

So if you’ve chronically been in the cycle of consuming processed foods, not getting enough movement in your daily life or have been living with regular stress or sleeplessness, and you’re experiencing things like anxiety, chronic pain or migraines, it’s important to consider the health of your endocannabinoid system. 

And that might mean supplementing with the phytocannabinoids found in cannabis.

What does cannabis do to the endocannabinoid system?

Since different cannabinoids work differently in the system, and we still have little clinical research showing what works best for certain conditions, supplementation takes time and experimentation. 

Finding the right balance and dose of the major cannabinoids is a good first step. Understanding how popular phytocannabinoids work in the system can help make the journey easier.

For example, THC directly interacts with the system directly which is probably why it quickly reduces nausea, relaxes muscles, increases appetite, changes mood and relieves spasms and pain.

CBD is what they call an “uptake inhibitor”. Your body naturally makes enzymes that eat your endocannabinoids like the cookie monster eats cookies (remember when I told you I’d explain it like you were 5?).

When you take CBD, it stops those enzymes from doing their job, which means more endocannabinoids in your system. That’s likely why regular use of CBD can help with sleep, pain relief, mood, inflammation and bolstering the immune system.

I’m going to include the caveat here that while it’s a very important system, I believe it’s important for all of health and wellness practices to look at the body as a whole. It turns out, what’s good for one system is good for the other.

In my experience, while cannabis can be extremely helpful in maintaining and improving your health, it’s not the end-all and be all. That’s why we focus on holistic health practices at the Cannabis Coaching Institute, and it’s why my own personal health journey included so many other lifestyle changes. 

There’s more to health than just cannabis.

What your doctor doesn’t know about the endocannabinoid system

Now that you’ve seen how important the endocannabinoid system is, you’d think that your doctor probably knows about it, right?


The endocannabinoid system is still rarely taught in medical schools, so it’s very likely that your physician has no idea why cannabis works and how it can help.

It takes an average of 17 years for research to reach your doctor’s office. It’s only been 20 since the system was discovered and the new research coming out about it now may not reach your doc for another couple of decades.

Sad? Yes. 

But luckily, you can help.

It’s not what your endocannabinoid system can do for you, it’s what you can do for your endocannabinoid system

Remember how I told you that the endocannabinoid system was discovered only 20 years ago and that very little research has been done because of prohibition?

You can do something about it. Write your leaders, join grassroots cannabis organizations and share this post with everyone you know. 

If you are using cannabis (even CBD), make sure you tell your doctor (there are drug interactions that he/she needs to be aware of) and go in ready to patiently and calmly share some information. 

Having research papers on hand like this one could potentially pique your doctor’s curiosity. You can also look for more specific research related to your condition. The Journal of Cannabis Research is also a great resource to share with your doctor if she/he seems interested.

The more people understand how important their endocannabinoid system is and how cannabis does so much more to it than make us feel all high, the easier it will be to end this chapter of the failed war on drugs.

Together, we can change this nonsense.

With love and endocannabinoid health,


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You May Also Like

My name is Corinne Tobias and I’m the creator of this site that is all about cannabis and health (and having a good time combining those things!).

Sign up for my free cannabis newsletter