Essential Oils and the Endocannabinoid System

Dec 28, 2022 | ECS

Essential oils are volatile aromatic compounds produced naturally by plants. Essential oils have a long history of use as medicines in most recorded cultures. There is a mountain of evidence that they work, but the exact mechanisms as to how they work are only just being uncovered. Recent studies suggest they support the endocannabinoid system in a positive way that can help to reduce and reverse a wide range of diseases.

The endocannabinoid system is an ancient and complex cell signalling system that is now widely believed to be the master system which regulates other systems in the body. Our bodies produce their own cannabinoids and we have receptors throughout the body for these compounds. These same receptors (known as CB1 and CB2) can also respond to chemicals found in plants.

CB1 receptors are predominantly found in the central nervous system, which makes them a primary target for neuropsychological disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. Our self produced endocannabinoid, Anandamide, also known as the Bliss molecule, primarily works with these receptors, stimulating a sense of happiness and mental wellness. THC from cannabis also binds to these same receptors, but has less predictable, and sometimes negative psychoactive effects. Research has also shown that unlike TCH which creates tolerance, requiring more and more to have the same effect, anandamide does not create tolerance and actually becomes more efficient over time. Therefore increasing the production, or decreasing the degradation, of endogenous cannabinoids seems to be a better way to support health in most cases where CB1 receptors are the target.

CB2 receptors are found in the peripheral nervous system and immune cells. This makes them a great target for treating inflammatory conditions, neuropathic pain and modulating the immune system. These receptors are favoured in current phytocannabinoid research as they are widely distributed throughout the body, thus the molecules that interact with them can have a significant effect on organelles, cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems without the risks of negative psychoactive side effects.

Beta-Caryophyllene – found in several essential oils

Beta-Caryophyllene (BCP) is one of the most widely studied phytocannabinoids which binds to CB2 receptors but not CB1, therefore there is no risk of psychoactive effects. It has been classified as a dietary cannabinoid and is recognised in the US as safe for internal use. It is found in its highest concentrations (up to 87.3%) in copaiba (Copaifera spp.), and is also found in significant amounts in black pepper (Piper nigrum), melissa (Melissa officials), guava leaf (Psidium guajava), hemp (Cannabis sativa), clove (Eugenia caryophyllata), and ylang ylang (Cananga odorata). Like anandamide, there is no creation of tolerance and studies have shown that the effect of BCP actually becomes stronger over time.

BCP has been found to have many beneficial effects including:

Actions to reduce pain and inflammation

  • Reducing immune related inflammation
  • Reducing neuropathic inflammatory conditions
  • Reducing inflammation caused by bacteria
  • Reducing eosinophil related inflammation
  • Reducing neuropathic pain
  • Enhancing the effects of other pain medications such as morphine, therefore enabling the use of lower doses and reducing the risk of drug dependence.

Protection from and treatment of cancer

  • Activating cytotoxic pathways against tumours
  • Potentiates pathways that hinder metastasis
  • Reduces the expression of oncogenes and proteins that cause cancer
  • Increases genes and proteins that destroy cancer cells
  • Has chemopreventive properties
  • Laboratory studies also indicate effects against kidney, lung, colorectal, liver and oral melanoma, leukaemia, lymphoma, and neuroblastoma cells

Promoting Mental Health and Wellbeing

  • Controls cognitive and emotional responses to stressors
  • Treatment of depression and stress related illnesses

Other Potential Benefits

  • Neuroprotective,
  • Antidiabetic,
  • Antioxidant,
  • Anticonvulsive,
  • Improves lipid profiles,
  • Alleviates endometriosis,
  • Protects against non alcoholic fatty liver disease,
  • Helpful for substance abuse disorders,
  • Exhibits promise for interstitial cystitis.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) Essential Oil

Lavender is a well studied essential oil. It is composed mainly of linalool and linalyl acetate and also contains small amounts of BCP and other chemicals. It is frequently used to treat anxiety, stress, pain, insomnia and skin conditions.

Recent studies have shown that lavender works by inhibiting the enzymes FAAH and MAGL which break down the endocannabinoids.

Blocking these enzymes has been found to support neuropathic pain relief, and alleviate inflammatory bowel disease, anxiety, cancer metastasis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica) Essential Oil

Rich in sesquiterpenes, cedarwood is frequently used in aromatherapy for nervous disorders such as anxiety and stress. It has also been found to reduce sensitivity to pain. There are no known phytocannabinoids in cedarwood and it is thought that it actually works by either increasing our own endocannabinoid production or by inhibiting their degradation.

Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) Essential Oil

Both mastic extract and mastic essential oil are used to lower blood pressure, as an anti-inflammatory, to relieve pain, as an antiseptic, to support the respiratory system and in the treatment of gastric disorders. Recent studies have evaluated it’s for use in the prevention of brain tissue damage in a stroke, and found that a single dose is enough to mitigate damage, and that the ECS is the mechanism for this. Mastic essential oil increases chemicals known as PEA (palmitoylethanolamine) and OEA (oleoylethanolamine) which are similar in structure to cannabinoids, which in turn increase DHA levels in the brain thus preventing the damage to the brain.


In addition to the oils above, several other oils, including pine and wormwood, have been shown to have chemical constituents that have a positive impact on the ECS and therefore essential oils have massive potential for human health and disease management.

Further research to investigate further phytomedicines present in essential oil, the mechanisms through which they operate and the health outcomes is highly likely to reveal substantial therapeutic value for a wide variety of conditions. Oils containing BCP, which influences multiple pathways, are of particular interest.