A recent blog discussed the fascinating endocannabinoid system, designed to maintain homeostasis—the state of a stable environment within the human body regardless of fluctuations in the external environment. This system was discovered as a result of the study of Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana.
The endocannabinoid system involves receptors, referred to as CB1 and CB2, which are stimulated by endocannabinoids—neurotransmitter protein molecules made within the body. The two most well understood endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Phytocannabinoids are plant-based chemicals that stimulate cannabinoid receptors. These include THC and non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) found in high concentrations in the industrial hemp plant. Other medical herbs, such as Echinacea purpurea contain non-psychoactive cannabinoids as well.
The CB1 receptor is predominantly present in the nervous system, connective tissues, gonads, glands, and organs. This receptor mediates psychoactivity and plays a role in regulating brain function, memory, mood, sleep, appetite, and pain sensation. Anandamide and THC stimulate the CB1 receptor. The CB2 receptor is found primarily in the immune system and its associated structures. It regulates immune response, including reducing inflammation, which is believed to be a factor in many diseases. 2-AG is the primary activator (also referred to as an agonist or binding molecule) for the CB2 receptor but can activate both CB receptors. CBD’s effects on CB receptors are most similar to those of 2-AG.
Many tissues contain both CB1 and CB2 receptors, each linked to a different action. Research has established that the functions of the cannabinoid system are essential for health and are a factor in processes ranging from embryonic implantation on the wall of a uterus to the body’s response to injury.
CB receptors also respond to laboratory-sourced cannabinoids such as synthetic THC dronabinol (Marinol) and nabilone (Casemet), a THC analog. Both are drugs that are FDA approved for the treatment of severe nausea and wasting syndrome. They are sometimes also used in the off-label treatment of chronic pain, migraine, and other conditions.
Research has revealed some interesting findings related to anandamide. The well-know “runner’s high” has traditionally been attributed to endorphins. However, this has come into question since endorphin molecules are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain. Research at the University of Arizona concluded that endocannabinoids, including anandamide, are more likely the explanation for this state. Similarly, during the state of heightened focus or concentration and peak performance–sometimes referred to as “the zone” or “flow”—the brain releases large quantities of “feel good” chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and anandamide.
Interestingly, it is not just mammalian bodies that employ cannabinoids to promote health. The cannabis plant uses the antioxidant properties of its own cannabinoids to protect the leaves and flowering structures from ultraviolet radiation. Cannabinoids protect cells by neutralizing the harmful free radicals generated by UV rays. In humans, free radicals are associated with aging, cancer, and impaired healing. Plant-derived antioxidants have long been promoted to help prevent free radical damage.
If you want to supplement your anandamide, eat chocolate. Research indicates that theobromine, a substance related to caffeine that is found in chocolate, may cause the brain to produce more anandamide. Chocolate is thought to contain both anandamide and compounds that slow its breakdown. This produces a net gain of anandamide, resulting in the temporary happy feeling associated with eating chocolate. Anandamide may also sometimes be associated with chocolate cravings. Dark chocolate will produce more anandamide than milk chocolate but even better are cacao nibs. Now you have yet another reason to enjoy your chocolate!