The Endocannabinoid System and Nutrition
Updated: Mar 22
by Leanne Barry DCN, MPH, MBA
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a collection of endocannabinoids and the proteins that are responsible for their metabolism, transport, and binding in the central neurons and peripheral cells within the body.1 Endocannabinoids are lipid signals that employ various actions in the central nervous system and peripheral tissues by binding to different receptors (CB1R, CB2R, CB3R, TRPV1) and activating different signaling pathways.1 The endocannabinoid system impacts all organs and body systems.2
The endocannabinoid system is made up of the following2:
Cannabinoid Receptors: The two main cannabinoid receptors are CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are found mainly in the brain (but have been found in almost all organs and systems). CB2 receptors are mainly found on immune cells.
Endocannabinoids: “Endocannabinoids are the signaling molecules that are made in the human body that bind to and activate cannabinoid receptors. The two main endocannabinoids that have been identified in humans are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).”
Enzymes. Endocannabinoids are synthesized on demand from fatty acids in cell membranes and then travel into the space between cells so they can bind receptors on neighboring cells (they act like neurotransmitters).
The endocannabinoid system is thought to control cellular function throughout the body to promote homeostasis and well-being. The ECS plays a role in stress, sleep, mood, appetite, immunity, inflammation, and even gut function.2
Cannabis contains over 100 phytocannabinoids including the most well-known, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC displays analgesic, antiemetic, muscle relaxant, antispasmodic, bronchodilatory, neuroprotectiveantioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antipruritic activities. While CBD exhibits analgesic, neuroprotective antioxidant anticonvulsant, anti-nausea, anti-MRSA, and antianxiety effects.3
How does the ESC relate to nutrition? There are certain foods and healthy lifestyle activities that can help the ECS function optimally and can increase the effectiveness of cannabis.4 Essential fatty acids, chocolate, herbs, spices, and tea are among the most well known ECS enhancing foods.4
Endocannabinoids are formed from the Omega 6 fatty acid, arachidonic acid. However, too much Omega 6 can lead to the down regulation of cannabinoid receptors, therefore Omega 3 is needed to balance out Omega 6 consumption. An ideal ratio of Omega 3 and Omega 6 is 1:1 and this is needed for a balanced ECS.4 Sources of ECS enhancing fatty acids include: hemp seeds and oil, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, sardines, anchovies, and eggs.
Chocolate, or cacao powder, contains compounds that are very similar to endocannabinoids and these compounds can “inhibit the breakdown of your body’s own endocannabinoids” leading to higher endocannabinoid levels in the body.4
Research has found many herbs and spices contain compounds that can also enhance the ECS including:
Beta-caryophyllene which is found in black pepper, oregano, cinnamon, clove, cannabis, and many others
Camelia sinensis (tea)
Maca root powder
It is also recommended that you avoid or greatly limit your exposure to pesticides and plastics. Both can disrupt the ECS. Alcohol can also negatively impair the ECS so it is best to drink alcohol in moderation or avoid it all together.4
Stress reducing activities can also enhance the ECS because stress is known to deplete the ECS. The following are examples of stress reducing activities that can enhance the ECS:
Osteopathic Manipulation (OMT)
Future articles will further explore the relationship between cannabis, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle activities on the endocannabinoid system.
About the Author: Leanne Barry earned her Doctorate degree in Clinical Nutrition from Maryland University of Integrative Health in April 2020. She also holds Master’s degrees in Public Health and Business. Leanne is passionate about helping others achieve their optimal state of health and wellness though nutritional and other complimentary pathways.