Living inside each of our guts is a micro world as diverse and abundant as an ocean reef or city metropolis. Innumerable helpful bacteria, fungi, and viruses make up our microbiome that promotes our overall well-being by breaking down food and capturing beneficial nutrients for our bodies to absorb. In addition to helpful bacteria, there are many dangerous microbial species in our guts, which contribute to human diseases such as obesity, cancer and even brain illnesses like Parkinson’s.
In the last decade, the health and wellness space was ignited by the importance of gut health and the gut-brain connection, meaning what happens in our gut affects our brains and the rest of our body. (For instance, over 90 percent of our serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with a positive mood, is created in the digestive tract.)
An obvious way humans can improve their gut health is through diet and probiotics. Kombucha and kimchi fans create a comfortable place for healthy microbes to live so they are better equipped to pull nutrients from food. But there may be another way to reinforce a healthy microbiome through another network that affects the gut-brain connection. While still mysterious, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is thought to act as a bridge between our body and bacteria.
The Endocannabinoid System
The ECS is a system made up of a network of receptors, enzymes and cannabinoids that bind to those receptors and result in various effects. It is thought to regulate mood, sleep, memory and much more. It interacts with cannabinoids from hemp and marijuana, such as THC and CBD, as well as other plants. But the body also produces its own endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-AG, by the consumption of certain foods and exercise. Just like how THC is an intoxicant, it is now believed that endocannabinoid production from exercise explains the runner’s high phenomena, the euphoric effect associated with rigorous activity, rather than endorphins. (You can get a more in-depth look at the ECS with our other post, Your Endocannabinoid System.)
ECS and Gut Health
The ECS may affect gut health in multiple ways. The ECS influences digestive processes such as appetite and metabolism. It also controls inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. This may be why major ECS receptors and enzymes are concentrated in the digestive system. ECS is also thought to regulate brain-gut communication in a bi-directional manner, meaning changes in the brain can affect GI function and vice versa. How and what the ECS is specifically doing is yet to be uncovered, but despite the many unknowns, studies support the connection between the two.
An article by non-profit Project CBD, Gut Microbiota and the Endocannabinoid System, by Nate Seltenrich, highlights the research into the ECS-gut connection. In a 2015 study, researchers fed mice a high-fat diet along with THC. After four weeks, the gut microbiome of these mice resembled the microbiomes of mice that ate a healthy diet. Another animal study showed that altering the gut microbiome of obese mice also increased ECS tone, which means the overall state of the ECS.
Of the few human studies, researchers found central differences in the guts of long-term cannabis users and non-cannabis users. The cannabis users had microbiomes that reflected high-caloric intake, yet they had lower BMIs. In HIV patients, swabs showed that two obesity-related bacteria were often absent in people who used cannabis.
It is also thought that ECS’s CB1 receptor helps regulate the gut’s protective lining called the epithelial barrier. The epithelial barrier helps repair damage and therefore maintain balance in the body.
We know that these systems are interacting, but we don’t know how. The scientific community is aiming to figure out how to target the gut biome through the ECS. Luckily there are a few studies in the works. In one study, researchers are suppressing the CB1 receptor and increasing 2-AG enzyme levels to see how it affects the microbiomes in mice (a sort of reverse study of the 2010 obesity and ECS tone research mentioned earlier). Another is looking at ECS levels in mice that have no microbiome to see how that impacts behavior.
Like much of the cannabis industry, there are many unanswered questions. Scientists are just beginning to uncover the ECS’s potential and how we can harness that power to improve our overall health.