How Weed Works in Your Body

Cannabis plants contain over 100 different chemicals called cannabinoids that interact with your body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The most well- known are delta-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Both are psychoactive but in different ways.

Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

The endocannabinoid system does not rely on the presence of cannabis to work. Your body’s endocannabinoid system includes:

  • Endocannabinoids (cannabinoids your body makes naturally)
  • Enzymes that help make endocannabinoids and break them down, and 
  • Receptors the endocannabinoids bind to cause the effect your body needs

We don’t fully understand the ECS, but in a nutshell:

  • Endocannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body and in the brain
  • The body only produces endocannabinoids when the body needs them, on-demand and locally (they are not sent through the body to other areas, and they are not stored for later)
  • Endocannabinoids are broken down very quickly into other products that produce a variety of responses on their own
  • Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids can make changes to cell function by binding to many types of receptors, but the response depends on where in the body the receptors are and what else is going on there 
  • Effects of these interactions is different for everyone as we are all unique
  • ECS during youth development is more sensitive to THC interruptions which may help explain higher risks for negative outcomes for youth exposed to cannabis frequently
  • During brain development, ECS is more sensitive to THC interruptions which may help explain higher risks for negative outcomes for youth who use cannabis early and frequently

Cannabinoids: THC, CBD and CBN

THC produces an intoxicating effect, but CBD does not. A third lesser known chemical with little to no psychoactivity is cannabinol (CBN). To better understand how cannabinoids can be helpful (health benefits) and harmful (e.g., brain development impacts) more research needed.

THC

  • Main psychoactive compound in weed 
  • Binds to your own endocannabinoid receptors (specifically CB1) which are otherwise asleep because your body doesn’t have a need to produce its own endocannabinoids—this disrupts the function of the ECS
  • Produces euphoria/high and associated impairments

CBD

  • Does not produce a high, but is psychoactive because it acts in the brain— being studied for its effect in terms of regulating schizophrenia, anxiety, pain and inflammation, seizures, and more
  • Comes in various forms:  gels, oils, capsules, and extracts to name a few
  • Binds very little with your endocannabinoid receptors
  • Hinders THC’s binding and weakens psychoactive effects or high
  • May help the body produce more of its own endocannabinoids

CBN

  • A by-product of THC produced when heated or exposed to oxygen
  • Most often found in aged cannabis products
  • Not psychoactive like THC, but elevates the effects of THC
  • Shares characteristics of CBD like anti-seizure and anti-inflammatory properties

Check out this animated video about how weed interacts with the ECS:

Under Construction: Cannabis and the Teen-Age Brain