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What Are Cannabinoid Receptors and What Do They Do?

infographic of neuron and immune cell in between cannabinoid

Cannabinoid receptors are a crucial component of the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). Every human body must maintain homeostasis, and cannabinoid receptors are the sites that – when activated – play a role in achieving this balance.

Cannabis works on cannabinoid receptors to exert different effects, many of which may provide therapeutic benefits. Read on to understand cannabinoid receptors, how they work, and how they are helpful.

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What Are Cannabinoid Receptors?

Every vertebrate species has an endocannabinoid system (ECS), which governs many of the body’s essential functions necessary for life. Endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors evolved in animals over 600 million years ago and are how the body achieves and maintains homeostasis.

Cannabinoid receptors exist throughout the body, including the brain, organs, glands, connective tissues, and immune cells. These receptors are thought to be more numerous than any other kind of receptor. When stimulated, cannabinoid receptors set off chain reactions responsible for a variety of physiological responses, such as memory and immunity

Science has identified two kinds of cannabinoid receptors:

  • CB1 receptors are predominantly found in the brain and central nervous system, though they exist in various organs, glands, and other connective tissues. CB1 receptors are the main target of THC and anandamide, the body’s version of the cannabinoid. THC is an agonist of – or activates – the CB1 cannabinoid receptor, binding to it and producing the cannabinoid’s intoxicating effects.
  • CB2 receptors are found primarily in the immune system and the peripheral nervous system, though some are also present in the brain. 2-AG, another endocannabinoid, and THC primarily act on these receptors.

Many body parts contain both CB1 and CB2 receptors, each responsible for different physiological processes.

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How Cannabinoid Receptors Help the Body

A well-functioning endocannabinoid system is essential for health, and cannabinoid receptors are what make the whole system run. Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids either activate or block the activation of CB1 and CB2 receptors, resulting in a variety of discernible effects.

Pain Relief

Cannabis acts on cannabinoid receptors to help relieve aches and pains in the body in two significant ways.

First, the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) interacts with pain receptors in the brain, diminishing the sensation of pain and improving the quality of life for people with conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or chronic pain. Second, cannabidiol (CBD) acts on the inflammatory response system, helping to block cytotoxins that would cause inflammation and reduce painful sensations.

Reduce Anxiety

Cannabinoid receptors also play a role in regulating mood and energy levels. Using cannabis, one can soothe anxiety and cope with insomnia or other sleep disorders thanks to the cannabinoid receptors involved in our sleep cycles.

Download Guide To Anxiety and Medical Cannabis

Appetite Regulation

CB1 and CB2 receptors play a role in appetite regulation and diet, making cannabis helpful in stimulating appetite and helping to regulate insulin. While THC can cause “the munchies,” which may be beneficial for those with diminished appetites, CBD can suppress feelings of hunger to manage caloric intake.


Given the density of CB1 receptors in the brain, it makes sense that the stimulation of these neurons helps protect them and may prevent degenerative diseases. THC has been demonstrated to boost brain health, while CBD reportedly has neuroprotective properties.

How Cannabis Interacts with Cannabinoid Receptors

The different chemicals in cannabis interact with cannabinoid receptors in specific ways, with different quantities producing individual nuanced experiences.

Again, THC – the most prevalent cannabinoid in marijuana – acts on CB1 and CB2 receptors, binding at the sites to stimulate different physiological activities. THC stays in your system until it eventually is metabolized by the body, with higher amounts making the effects last longer.

CBD, the second-most common cannabinoid, is not an agonist and does not bind with cannabinoid receptors. Instead, it acts as an antagonist at CB1 receptors and blocks the uptake of agonists (either THC, endocannabinoids, or other chemicals). CBD inhibits CB1 receptors and limits their activities, preventing overzealous immune responses such as pain or inflammation and counteracting some of the effects of THC.

Free Infographic Guide to Cannabinoids

Optimize the functions of your endocannabinoid system with a regimen of medical cannabis. The healthcare providers at Leafwell are here to help you apply for your medical marijuana card online.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why do we have cannabinoid receptors?

Every vertebrate (and some creatures without spines) has an endocannabinoid system complete with cannabinoid receptors. The human body creates natural versions of cannabis compounds (called “endocannabinoids”) responsible for regulating different processes involved with homeostasis, such as mood, pain sensation, appetite, immune function, and sleep.

What do cannabinoids do in the body?

Cannabinoids can have a wide range of effects on each person, depending on the makeup of their endocannabinoid system and what type is consumed. The cannabinoids interact with cannabinoid receptors and have therapeutic effects on stress, immune response, appetite, and other health concerns.

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