Simple ways to supercharge your endocannabinoid system—with or without cannabis

I’ve devoted a lot of space in this newsletter to singing the praises of cannabis over the last couple of years.

After all, prescriptions don’t get safer, more effective, or more natural than marijuana. And as a holistically minded doctor, I can’t think of a more valuable tool to have in my arsenal.

So it’s a real shame that it’s been all but ignored by modern science… until recently.

And now that the medical community is actually giving marijuana the credit it deserves—as an actual medicine and not just a recreational drug—people are finally paying attention to the role endocannabinoids play in human health.

How cannabis keeps your body balanced

Cannabis has such an impressively diverse list of benefits because it interacts with our body’s own complex endocannabinoid system.

This system regulates a staggering range of biological processes—from mood, memory, sleep, and appetite to pain perception and inflammation response.

As I’ve explained here before, your body has two main cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. The former is most abundant in your brain, central nervous system, and connective tissues. Whereas CB2 is located throughout the gastrointestinal (GI) and immune system.

So when you use marijuana, all it really does is boost your body’s natural ability to activate one or both of these critical receptors, thanks to its two main phytocannabinoids: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

THC upregulates the activity of your CB1 receptors, which is why it produces psychoactive effects that get you “high.” Meanwhile CBD directs your CB2 receptors, and plays a key role in blocking inflammation within your body’s tissues, without any psychoactive effects.

Clearly, there are benefits to both substances. Which is why I took the time to become legally licensed to prescribe both in the states of New York and California. (Though I often recommend CBD first to patients who are still gun-shy about prescription marijuana.)

But what many people don’t realize is that cannabis isn’t the only way to get your body’s endocannabinoid system firing on all cylinders.

In fact, there are a number of simple, everyday strategies you can use to get a lot of the same benefits without turning to medical marijuana at all…

Fuel endocannabinoids with fat

Given the mood-boosting, inflammation-quenching benefits of omega-3s, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that these fatty acids are critical fuel for your endocannabinoid system.

In fact, omega-3 fatty acids serve as building blocks that your body uses to generate its own natural cannabinoid supply. These endocannabinoids then convert into anti-inflammatory substances that bind with CB2 receptors in the immune system—delivering the same effects of marijuana, without the high.1

But omega-3s are also necessary for CB1 receptor formation. And since these are the receptors that uptake THC, ample omega-3s can ensure that you’re getting the most bang for your buck where this cannabinoid’s benefits are concerned.

Most people in this country don’t get nearly enough of these critical fats, though. Which is why I regularly recommend a daily fish oil supplement—one that contains 3,000 mg of DHA/EPA per day.

Fatty, cold water fish, eggs, and nuts are all excellent food sources of omega-3s, too. But they’re not the only endocannabinoid boosters you can cook up yourself…

Common cannabinoids in your kitchen

I’ll kick off this section with a class of plants that should already be staples in your diet: cruciferous veggies (like broccoli, kale, and cabbage).

Because now, research shows that diindolylmethane (DIM)—the very same molecule behind crucifers’ powerful cancer-fighting properties—is also able to bind with CB2.2

Meanwhile, other studies show that cocoa contains three different substances that mimic cannabinoids and boost levels of anandamide, a fatty acid that binds with cannabinoid receptors.3 In other words, chocolate—especially if it’s at least 70 percent cacao—can replicate the effect of medicinal marijuana (as well as make it more effective).

There’s also a long list of common kitchen spices that can do the same thing—including cinnamon, clove, oregano, and black pepper. All of these spices contain a terpenoid called beta-caryophyllene, which activates CB2 receptors.4 (And has documented stress- and anxiety-relieving properties.)

Then, of course, you have one of my personal favorites—saffron.    

This spice is one of your best natural defenses against age-related macular degeneration (AMD). And as it turns out, its effects on the endocannabinoid system are at least partly behind that benefit.

A team of Australian scientists concluded that saffron engages both CB1 and CB2 receptors, which is what gives it the ability to protect the retina against ultraviolet (UV) damage.5

If you’ve ever cooked with saffron, you know it’s not cheap or meant to be used with a heavy hand. So unlike more common spices, you’re never going to be able to get the full benefit of saffron from cooking with it.

But thanks to high-quality saffron extracts—which are available both in combination formulas and as stand-alone supplements—you don’t have to. Which is why I recommend taking 30 mg of a standardized extract daily.

Eliminate toxins—and exercise every day

Boosting your endocannabinoid system also requires eliminating influences that can weaken it. And once again, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that commonplace toxins like pesticides and phthalates (which you’ll commonly find in plastics, as I discuss on page 2) are a big problem.

These chemicals can interfere with and block cannabinoid receptor activity.6 (Yet another reason to purge your house of plastic containers and to purchase organic produce whenever possible.)

But high levels of the stress-hormone cortisol can also block the function of CB1 receptors—meaning stress is another endocannabinoid crusher. The good news? Exercise, much like marijuana, appears to be able to reverse this effect.

In fact, German researchers recently discovered that the notorious “runner’s high” may not be due to endorphin release alone. Their study on mice showed that wheel running boosted endocannabinoids, too—reducing both pain sensation and anxiety.7

Granted, mice aren’t humans. But another recent clinical study showed that these benefits translate to people, too.

The experiment was small, but the results were impressive. Researchers measured endocannabinoid levels and mood changes in 17 women, both before and after 30-minute sessions on a stationary bike.

As it turns out, there were significant improvements in both parameters after moderate-intensity exercise. And these benefits lasted for at least 30 minutes after the workout was finished.8

So if THC or CBD aren’t your cup of tea, well… a brisk walk around the block may be just what the doctor ordered. Start incorporating moderate physical activity into your daily routine, to the tune of 20 minutes daily.

References:

1. McDougle DR, et al. “Anti-inflammatory ω-3 endocannabinoid epoxides.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Jul 25;114(30):E6034-E6043.

2. Yin H, et al. “Lipid G protein-coupled receptor ligand identification using beta-arrestin PathHunter assay.” J Biol Chem. 2009 May 1;284(18):12328-38.

3. James JS. “Marijuana and chocolate.” AIDS Treat News. 1996 Oct 18;(No 257):3-4.

4. Gertsch J, et al. “Beta-caryophyllene is a dietary cannabinoid.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Jul 1;105(26):9099-104.

5. Natoli R, et al. “Gene and noncoding RNA regulation underlying photoreceptor protection: microarray study of dietary antioxidant saffron and photobiomodulation in rat retina.” Mol Vis. 2010 Sep 3;16:1801-22.

6. Quistad GB, et al. “Cannabinoid CB1 receptor as a target for chlorpyrifos oxon and other organophosphorus pesticides.” Toxicol Lett. 2002 Sep 5;135(1-2):89-93.

7. Fuss J, et al. “A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Oct 20;112(42):13105-8.

8. Meyer JD, et al. “Serum Endocannabinoid and Mood Changes after Exercise in Major Depressive Disorder.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Sep;51(9):1909-1917.


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