Have you ever wondered what a “runner’s high” and a cannabis high have in common? As it turns out, the human body naturally produces molecules that are similar to those found in the cannabis plant. These molecules have a variety of functions, including inspiring a feeling of euphoria after exercise.
In humans and animals, these compounds are called endocannabinoids. The prefix endo- means internal. As in, “inside the body.”
In a way, when you consume cannabis, you are supplementing your own endocannabinoids with a plant-based version.
Other vitamins and minerals also come in both plant and animal forms. Iron, for example, is found largely as heme iron in animals. In plants, it is found only as non-heme iron and requires some extra steps to be fully broken down in the body.
In cannabis, the active cannabinoid compounds are called phytocannabinoids, with phyto- referring to plants. The primary psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is a phytocannabinoid. So is cannabidiol (CBD), the molecule that has successfully calmed epileptic seizures.
Interestingly, phytocannabinoids can take the place of endocannabinoids in the body. Some of them, like CBD, can also alter the levels of endocannabinoids circulating in your system. This changes something called “endocannabinoid tone”.
But, what exactly are endocannabinoids and what do they do? Why is supporting endocannabinoid health important?
What are endocannabinoids?
As mentioned above, endocannabinoids are the body’s own cannabis. To get specific, these little molecules are lipids (fats) that engage with a larger signaling network. This larger network is called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The ECS is made up of endocannabinoid molecules, the enzymes that break them down, and the cell receptors with which endocannabinoids connect. Named after the cannabis plant, these cell receptors are called cannabinoid receptors.
Cannabinoid receptors are found in nearly every organ in the body and throughout the immune system. While these receptors are most heavily concentrated in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), the presence of receptors on organ tissues throughout the body indicates that the ECS is a vital bridge between body and mind.
Thus far, there are two primary endocannabinoids. These are anandamide (AEA) and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Anandamide is famously known as the “bliss molecule” and it is the compound most often compared to THC.
2-AG is the most common endocannabinoid. Exactly what 2-AG does is unclear at this time, but the compound is thought to play a role in inflammation, immunity, appetite, pain, mood, and even cancer cell development.
What does the endocannabinoid system (ECS) do?
The ECS is a homeostatic regulator. This means that it helps maintain optimum balance in the body. If you’re suffering from nervous stomach and simultaneously experience anxiety, the ECS helps connect the physical emotion with conscious thought.
While the system has a plethora of functions, it lends a major hand in:
- Immune function
- Bone metabolism
The endocannabinoid system is different from person to person. Genetic research suggests that some people are born with a “bliss gene” that prevents anandamide from being broken down in the body.
About 20 percent of adult Americans are thought to have this gene. Though, members of different ethnic groups have different likelihoods of carrying this mutation. Of the Han Chinese living in China, for example, only 14 percent carry the gene.
These lucky few who won the genetic lottery are thought to have lower levels of anxiety and are less likely to develop cannabis dependence.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, studies have found that those who are genetically predisposed to major depression may also be genetically more likely to be chronic cannabis consumers.
Though more research is needed, leading theorists speculate that low endocannabinoid function may contribute to a variety of modern diseases.
Specifically, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and migraine are thought to be caused, at least in part, by an “endocannabinoid deficiency.”
However, a 2016 review published in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research suggests that imbalances in the ECS may also contribute to a host of additional conditions. These include motion sickness, multiple sclerosis, diabetic neuropathy, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s Disease, post-traumatic stress, autism, and various mental health conditions.
How do you support the endocannabinoid system?
Like a supplement, cannabis nourishes the ECS by replacing endocannabinoids and/or enhancing endocannabinoid tone.
While taking cannabis can provide symptom relief and perhaps temporarily correct an endocannabinoid deficiency, there are a few simple lifestyle interventions that can support endocannabinoids in the body. Some of these interventions include:
Exercise is one of the best ways to engage the endocannabinoid system. Research shows that exercise triggers the release of anandamide in humans, providing them with a feel-good boost after working up a sweat.
Similarly, experiments in mice without the CB1 cannabinoid receptor shows that the rodents spend less time wheel running. Both of these signs indicate that movement is critical for releasing endocannabinoids in the body.
2. Healthy diet
For the longest time, dietary fat was mistakenly pinpointed as a cause of obesity and weight gain. While yes, eating loads of fat can cause you to gain weight, dietary fat is vital for health.
As it turns out, endocannabinoids are derived from dietary fats.
Specifically, they are made from a certain type of omega-6 essential fatty acids. Research shows that consuming linoleic acid, commonly found in hemp oil, elevates levels of both 2-AG and anandamide in the body.
Common food sources of linoleic acid include hemp, grains, poultry, and whole grains.
However, just consuming omega-6 fatty acids is not enough. Omega-6 fatty acids need to be consumed in a balanced ratio with omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids help control the expression of cannabinoid receptors.
Common food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish, shellfish, algae, walnuts, hemp, and flaxseed.
A small but growing body of evidence also suggests that eating probiotic-rich foods may alter the ECS. Research has shown that THC can alter the ratios of bacteria in the gut, and certain bacteria can influence the expression of cannabinoid receptors in the digestive tract.
Notably, Lactobacillus acidophilus, which can be found in probiotic supplements.
Getting enough sleep is another important way to support the endocannabinoid system. A 2016 study published in the journal Sleep has shown that not getting enough sleep can throw the endocannabinoid system off balance.
The result? Sleep munchies.
Human sleep deprivation was associated with an increased circulation of 2-AG, which caused study participants to eat about 400 calories more than they would have had they gotten their full 8 hours.
So, hoping to boost your natural endocannabinoids in a healthy way? It’s as simple as moving your body, eating healthy foods and fats, and catching some quality Zzzs. Of course, supplementing with a little cannabis can sure help, too.
This post was originally published on June 19, 2017, it was updated on October 5, 2017.