How Does CBD Oil Work? Guide to the Endocannabinoid System

If you’re interested in trying CBD but want to know how exactly it works in the body, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll also take a look at what’s in this all natural health supplement to inform you on everything you should know before taking it. CBD oil has many physiological and neurological effects. It’s highly therapeutic and can assist with many health issues or simply improve your recovery, recuperation and day to day focus. How does it do this? It comes down to the unique cannabinoid and phytonutrient content of the oil. It is rich in many useful compounds including terpenes, antioxidants and fatty acids that all help to contribute to its wellness promoting effects. 

Brief Overview

Hemp or cannabis naturally produces a huge number of different types of cannabinoids. These are unique compounds to the hemp plant, many of which have health promoting or anti inflammatory properties. Examples include CBG or cannabigerol which reduces inflammation and can help with arthritis or CBN (cannabinol) that is analgesic (anxiety reducing) and can help you get more restful sleep. CBD is another of these. It doesn’t have any psychoactive effects and can’t get you ‘high’ but is able to help with many conditions like arthritis. 

When consumed, hemp products will be absorbed by the body into the bloodstream. It’s irrelevant whether you orally consume, inhale or sublingually take CBD. Molecules will be transferred to your bloodstream and passed through to the liver. Once at the liver, they’re broken down and metabolized by certain liver enzymes. The metabolized compounds are then transported to both the receptors of the endocannabinoid system as well as other neuromodulators in the body where they take effect. Let’s take a look further at how this works.

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

Homeostasis is defined as the self regulation of the body to maintain its internal state to ensure it retains health and survives in its environment. This mechanism is primarily controlled by the central nervous system and endocrine system, which work in combination to keep the body in balance and control hormonal function. It operates via feedback loops, taking inputs from the nervous system and internal stimulus like body temperature or blood sugar levels to automatically regulate and control our body’s physical state. When homeostasis is disrupted or becomes unbalanced it leads to negative health effects.

This can occur for many reasons. For example sleep disorders can heavily disrupt the function of hormones and impact homeostasis. Similarly many environmental factors like pollution or ingesting chemicals in foods like preservatives can lead to endocrine disruption. These can wreak havoc on the balance of hormones, circadian rhythm, regulation of hunger, mood, focus and more. It’s critical that hormonal and homeostatic balance is kept functionally optimally to protect and improve your long term health. So where does the endocannabinoid system or ECS come in?

This is another regulatory system in the body which has links to and affects the central nervous system, immune system and endocrine function. Research has shown it is able to influence mood, sleep patterns, focus, hormonal balance and immunity. How? It has receptors that are distributed through the body, in the brain, CNS and organs like the gut or spleen. Metabolites from cannabinoids like CBN or CBD are able to activate these receptors after they have been processed by the liver. When they bind with these receptors it causes the release of endocannabinoids. The endocannabinoid system isn’t only in humans – evolutionarily it is present in most mammals and has been around for millenia. We’re only now discovering its importance and influence on our health.

There are two types of cannabinoid receptors – the CB1 receptor, located primarily in the body and peripheral organs such as the skin. The CB2 receptor type is located in the brain and CNS. These function as ‘receivers’ or binding sites for cannabinoid compounds and phytocannabinoids. They can switch these receptors on and cause them to activate the ECS, triggering the release of endocannabinoids.


Endocannabinoids are produced by the body, hence the prefix ‘endo’ meaning endogenous. This makes them different from ‘phytocannabinoids’ like CBN or CBD which are exogenous and can only be taken in by consuming them. The two most important of these compounds that are released when cannabinoids act on the endocannabinoid system are anandamide and 2-AG. These are both anti-inflammatory and analgesic compounds that play a role in bolstering cell health, improving homeostasis and reinforcing immunity. They even play a role in regulating memory formation and learning, plus help the brain adapt to changes. Little is known on how they are specifically produced by the body and the true extent of their benefits but research is ongoing. 

Anandamide is largely responsible for the calming, balancing and anti anxiety benefits of CBD oil. 2-AG has more of an inflammation reducing response, helping the body reduce symptoms of issues like arthritis. Each has wide ranging effects however and assists in maintaining the body’s homeostasis and hormonal balance. They may also aid in improving sleep and restoring circadian patterns because of their effects on the brain via the CB1 receptors. Anandamide is frequently referred to as the ‘bliss’ enzyme due to its capacity to stimulate mood and result in overall increases in happiness for many users. It can create a similar feeling of wellbeing and calm that accompanies the runners high that occurs after intense cardiovascular exercise.


Outside of acting on the cannabinoid receptors, cannabinoids like CBG can also influence the modulation of neurotransmitters. While this sounds complex, it’s fairly simple. The main neurotransmitters are dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is the feel good transmitter, responsible for pleasure, learning and motivation. Serotonin on the other hand influences mood, memory and cognition. While cannabinoids primarily act on the endocannabinoid system, their function on core neurotransmitters may explain many of their benefits for mood, anxiety, focus and learning. Many universities are researching these effects in more depth such as the Lambert Institute at Sydney University in Australia. Their findings may help to reinforce the anecdotes from users that it helps in turning around and managing anxiety, depression and mental imbalances. The specific mechanisms underlying this are yet to be fully understood.

Physiological Effects

Because the endocannabinoid system has such a broad reaching interaction with the body and its homeostatic functions, it affects and benefits many different areas. In terms of physiological effects, the majority of these are derived from CB2 receptor activation.

Endocannabinoids and the ECS has influences your body by helping to regulate and maintain:

  • Metabolism and cellular function

Many cannabinoids have antioxidative effects. What does this mean? They help to prevent cellular and DNA damage from free radicals, shielding them from oxidative stress. Free radicals can react with the chemical structure and DNA of our cells, causing it to decay. Antioxidants prevent this reaction from occuring. This means many types of cells including neurons or brain cells, blood and even immune system cells such as T cells are protected by the actions of cannabinoids.

  • Motor control and muscle formation
  • Skin and hair health
  • Liver and cardiovascular function
  • Inflammation and immune function

Inflammation is the underlying cause of most chronic diseases. It’s the response from your body’s internal protection and repair functions, triggered when damage or intrusion like bacteria are present and must be fought off or repaired. In cases of inflammatory conditions like arthritis or colitis however, the inflammatory response is continuously active which causes degradation of the body as it fights itself. Both cannabinoids like CBG and CBN as well as terpenes are anti-inflammatory and help to lower the severity and symptoms of inflammation. For bodily inflammation this is primarily through CB2 receptor pathways. For example cannabinoids can help to inhibit the actions of T cells on exacerbating inflammatory activity by attacking the body’s own cells. 

Endocannabinoids can also influence the production of cytokines which have immunity benefits. Cytokines are proteins that help to control cell signaling and production.In each case the results will vary by individual. Each person has a differing metabolism and homeostasis level. Endocannabinoids will support and help bring balance to the body but can’t fix everything. If your body is thrown out of balance by injury, arthritis or illness, the ECS can work to reinforce homeostasis and bring it back into balance. 

Neurological Effects

CB1 receptors in the brain, brain stem and throughout the nervous system influence the functioning of CBD and other cannabinoids on the mind. Endocannabinoids like anandamide have significant neuroprotective and anxiolytic effects. They’re able to reduce the strength of the stress or fight and flight response in the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the nerves and reducing the effects of anxiety. 

  • Stress and parasympathetic nervous system function (including anxiety)

Downregulating the effects of anxiety and stress are important for those suffering from chronic mental stress. It can exacerbate or even cause many mental illnesses like depression, PTSD and migraines. Through the CB1 receptor pathways, endocannabinoids act as anxiolytic and stress reducing compounds. Anandamide in particular is thought to stimulate feelings of calmness, lowering cortisol release and the stress response that underlies anxiety.

  • Sleep and circadian rhythm
  • Pain responses and tolerance

Anandamide and 2-AG both play a role in reducing the effects of pain and its discomforts. They suppress inflammatory markers, modulating down symptoms of chronic pain. By activating the CB1 receptors the perception of pain is also markedly reduced, helping many to better manage the feelings of pain that can accompany injury and many types of disease. Some endocannabinoids also help to produce prostamides which are pain mitigating enzymes. Prostamides lower the acute pain response and help to reduce inflammation occurring from tissue damage. 

  • Mood and happiness
  • Focus and learning

Some of the most abundant clinical research on CBD in particular centers on its neuroprotective effects. It was able to assist in reducing the incidence and severity of seizures in children with epilepsy. This suggests it may have benefits for the neurons and their signaling processes, helping to protect against disruption from diseases like alzheimers or epilepsy. Much of the neuron degeneration that is caused by aging is due to glutamate. This is a neurotoxic chemical that inhibits the calcium channels and signaling between neurons, causing their misfiring or even death. CBD and endocannabinoids are antioxidative and can help to prevent the damage caused by glutamate. 

The endocannabinoid system in animals

Like humans, dogs, cats, horses and other mammals (such as rats) also have endocannabinoid systems, however these may vary in their function and effects compared to us. This system doesn’t however occur in insects or reptiles. CB1 and CB2 receptors are also thus present in most mammals, although their distribution is likely not the same as in humans. Studies have shown that there exist far more CB1 receptors in the brains of dogs than humans for example. 

Research to date of the ECS’s effects in animals has been sparse but mostly focussed on canines or dogs. It’s thought that most of the benefits it confers to humans like improved immunity and lowered inflammation are also common in other animals. 


Outside of cannabinoids, other phytonutrients like terpenes also offer profound health benefits to the mind and body. These compounds are also produced by hemp and are natural plant scent pheromones. Terpenes, like CBD, are anti-inflammatory and antioxidative. Their inflammation reducing effect is a result of their binding to prostaglandin receptors in the body. Limonene, myrcene and beta caryophyllene are the most important of the terpenes found in the hemp plant in terms of the health benefits they provide. These compounds also bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in differing ways to Phyto cannabinoids.

Many terpenes like myrcene have been found to be strongly anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective in rat studies. Like CBD, they may reduce free radical damage to the neurons. Terpenes aren’t only found in hemp but are naturally produced by many plants including lavender, cloves and tea trees. Whenever you smell a plant’s scent, it’s almost certainly the result of a fragrant terpene compound.


There is still much to learn about cannabinoids like CBD and how they work via the endocannabinoid system. This is particularly the case with regards to its function in animals like dogs and cats where clinical studies are few and far between. In this article we’ve explored how CBD oil works. CBD as well as many other cannabinoids like CBG function in the body through the endocannabinoid system. Through complex metabolic pathways they deliver inflammatory and anxiolytic benefits to the body and mind via endocannabinoids. We’ve explored how they help the body therapeutically through the CB2 pathways, helping reduce pain, lower inflammation and help regulate homeostasis. In the brain and CNS, endocannabinoids triggered by the CB1 receptors help to lower stress and anxiety, protect the neurons, improve our mood and aid in regulating sleeping patterns. 

While less known, terpenes in hemp oil provide added antioxidative benefits, contributing further to its antioxidative effect. The endocannabinoid system primarily helps regulate homeostasis, it also contributes to better immune function and a range of other areas. Yet cannabinoids don’t only act on the receptors of this system – they can function with neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin to confer other neurological benefits such as improved focus plus reduced appetite. The research into this fascinating system and its effects is still nascent but incredibly promising and undoubtedly more will be learned of its mechanics over time.