By Kristi Pahr
What goes on in our gut is more vital to overall health than many people realize. Filled with bacteria, neurotransmitters, receptors, the gut is intimately involved in more than just digesting our food.
Over the last several years, researchers have discovered that a network of bacteria within the gut, called the gut microbiome, can impact numerous facets of our health and daily lives. This network of bacteria is so important that some have dubbed it a “second brain” and credit it with helping to regulate our immune systems, synthesize certain vitamins, and regulate memory, mood, and learning. But it’s not just bacteria that run the show in the gut — the endocannabinoid system has a heavy presence there as well, and scientists are just beginning to understand its full impact on our well-being.
A Review of The Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is made up of neurotransmitters and receptors that work together to keep the body in balance, or homeostasis. Chemicals called endocannabinoids, which are cannabinoids synthesized within the body, bind with endocannabinoid receptors when the body senses that anything is out of whack and help bring systems and physiological processes back in line.
Some plants also synthesize cannabinoids called phytocannabinoids. When we consume products made from the cannabis plant, like marijuana or CBD products, phytocannabinoids bind with ECS receptors in the same way as the endocannabinoids produced within our bodies and can help relieve pain and anxiety, help with inflammation, and help manage a number of chronic conditions.
The Endocannabinoid System and Gut Health
The ECS found in our guts is responsible for several aspects of gut health and could be the key to managing chronic conditions like Crohn’s disease and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBS). Because of its well-known anti-inflammatory properties, cannabinol (CBD) could help manage or reduce the inflammation associated with these common digestive disorders, of which inflammation is a main symptom.
The gut also plays a significant role in our body’s immune response. Bacteria located there are in direct contact with the brain and immune receptors and can trigger immune responses when not properly balanced. These immune responses can cause, among other things, inflammation leading to digestive upset, and if left unchecked, can result in chronic gastrointestinal problems.
CBD interacts with ECS receptors within the gut and regulates the release of inflammatory cells that are part of the immune response. The overactive immune response is muted, thereby relieving inflammation and reducing symptoms associated with a number of digestive issues.
The Gut-Brain Axis
Recently, researchers have discovered that the GI tract plays a significant role in mental health as well as physical health. Bacteria in the gut form a direct pathway to the brain, and in turn, the brain communicates directly with the gut, meaning that gut dysbiosis can result in a number of mood disturbances, most notably anxiety and depression.
When the gut is out of whack, signals sent to the brain can trigger hormone release that affects mood and mental health. By manipulating the endocannabinoid receptors located within the gut with phytocannabinoids like CBD, we can reduce inflammation allowing healthy bacteria to flourish. Healthy bacteria in the gut send fewer distress signals to the brain, and symptoms of anxiety and depression could potentially be lessened.
While the implications of the gut-brain axis are groundbreaking in terms of pathways to improved wellness, the addition of the ECS to the mix is downright exciting. While we already know that CBD is something of a wonder in terms of management of pain and other chronic conditions, the implications of the compound being used to improve gut health and the microbiome could be a revolutionary development for some of the most common and most debilitating mood disorders.
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Kristi Pahr is a freelance health and wellness writer and mother of two who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She is frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Men’s Health, and many others.