Cannabinoids – A No-Brainer

Idaho state legislators this year debated House Bill 122, introduced to legalize hemp production and sales in our state. Passing the bill would have put Idaho on par with 41 other states that have legalized hemp, and the 2018 Farm Bill, which deregulates hemp and legalizes it nationwide. However, the law didn’t pass, much to the dismay of Idaho farmers and industries selling sell – or wanting to sell – hemp-derived products, such as CBD oil.

As a nutritionist, I’ve been following cannabis laws because I understand the natural and therapeutic benefits of hemp. While all varieties contain some combination of hundreds of plant compounds called “cannabinoids, extremely low levels of THC (the psychoactive component) differentiates hemp from marijuana. Active botanical properties in cannabis support the body’s internal cannabinoid system, discovered in the early 1990’s (Alger, 2013), a biological system that keeps the body in homeostasis.

So recent is the discovery of the endocannabinoid system that the general public (and perhaps many legislators) do not know how complexly it is interwoven between the immune system, nervous system and almost all of the body’s organs (Alger, 2013). Its primary roles is to “relax, eat, sleep… and protect” (McPartland, Guy & Di Marzo, 2014).

We produce our own, endogenous cannabinoids (“endocannabinoids”), which are also neurotransmitters, and which circulate throughout the body to communicate with each other (Alger, 2013) and activate cannabinoid receptors (Hillard, 2018). Receptors reside everywhere scientists have looked: the brain, liver, spleen, muscles, connective tissues, fat tissues, glands, and immune and gastrointestinal cells (Alger, 2013; Hillard, 2018).

Cannabinoid receptors (specifically, CB1) are particularly prevalent in the brain (Alger, 2013) let’s focus there. Here, the endocannabinoid system regulates neuroplasticity, is neuroprotective, controls pain and memory (McPartland, Guy & Di Marzo, 2014) and connects brain activity with the operations of virtually every other physiologic system (Alger, 2013). Cannibinoids impact brain activity by directing behaviors and responses; influencing memory, learning and decision making; affecting emotions; balancing innumerable bodily functions (Alger, 2013) and also regulating metabolism (Hillgard, 2018).

Anandamide, for example, is an endocannabinoid given a Sanskrit nickname meaning “divine joy” because it acts on pleasure receptors in the brain (Alger, 2013). Anandamide influences both intake and storage of energy by turning on hedonistic hormones that make you hungry for self-indulgent foods. The same “munchies” cravings occur when we consume exocannabinoids, such as THC (Alger, 2013; Hillard, 2018).

Ever experienced runner’s high? Anandamide is released during exercise and stimulates mood and cognition (Hillgard, 2018), while “2-AG” – the other prevalent endocannabinoid, is signaled to moderate the stress response (Sharkey & Wiley, 2016).

Besides reducing recovery time from stress (Hillard, 2018), types of stress and amounts of distress affect both concentrations and control of endocannabinoids in brain activity (Hillard, 2018).

Cannabinoid receptors in the brain even influence the creation of new fat cells (Hillard, 2018), hence the potential role cannabinoids play in obesity and metabolic disorders (Alger, 2013). Interestingly, depression is connected both with obesity and chronic stress, so it may not be surprising that low levels of endocannabinoids are common in those suffering from major depression (Hillard, 2018). 

With the prohibition-era removal of cannabis from our food, agricultural and medical supply during the prohibition era, humans have been deprived of consuming cannabis for almost 80 years. What are the implications? More and more studies show that a depleted endocannabinoid system is connected to some of the most common diseases and disorders plaguing people today, from obesity and diabetes, to anxiety and depression (Hillard, 2018).

For those of us with endocannbinoid deficiency (an actual medical term) it’s possible to improve mood disorders, stress, inflammatory conditions, or chronic pain, by obtaining cannabinoids from plant food such as cruciferous vegetables, although their activity on cannabinoid receptors is weak (Gertsch, Pertwee & Di Marzo, 2010). Culinary herbs and spices containing beta-caryophyllene, a cannabinoid receptor stimulating terpene, include oregano, cinnamon and black pepper (Gersch et al, 2008). And, my personal mood-enhancing, dark chocolate, contains anandamide (Nehlig, 2013).

Still, the cannabis plant contains the most potent cannabinoids and, until Idaho passes a law legalizing non-psychoactive hemp as a therapeutic substance, we have to get creative about enhancing our brain function. Or, resign ourselves to living out of balance.



Alger B. E. (2013). Getting high on the endocannabinoid system. Cerebrum : the Dana forum on brain science2013, 14.

Biles, M. (2017). Anandamide – The body’s own antidepressant and how to boost it naturally. Medium.

 Gertsch, J., Leonti, M., Raduner, S., Racz, I., Chen, J. Z., Xie, X. Q., … Zimmer, A. (2008). Beta-caryophyllene is a dietary cannabinoid. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America105(26), 9099–9104. doi:10.1073/pnas.0803601105

Gertsch, J., Pertwee, R. G., & Di Marzo, V. (2010). Phytocannabinoids beyond the Cannabis plant - do they exist?. British journal of pharmacology160(3), 523–529. doi:10.1111/j.1476-5381.2010.00745.x

Hillard C. J. (2017). Circulating Endocannabinoids: From Whence Do They Come and Where are They Going?. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology43(1), 155–172. doi:10.1038/npp.2017.130

McPartland, J. M., Guy, G. W., & Di Marzo, V. (2014). Care and feeding of the endocannabinoid system: a systematic review of potential clinical interventions that upregulate the endocannabinoid system. PloS one9(3), e89566. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089566

Nehlig A. (2013). The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. British journal of clinical pharmacology75(3), 716–727. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x

Sharkey, K. A., & Wiley, J. W. (2016). The Role of the Endocannabinoid System in the Brain-Gut Axis. Gastroenterology151(2), 252–266. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2016.04.015