How the Endocannabinoid System Connects Your Gut and Your Brain
"The brain and the gut speak the same language."1 — Ethan Russo, M.D.
It's true. Your gut has a brain.
This second brain won’t help you to do a crossword puzzle or remember a password, but its connection to the brain in your head plays a major role in regulating digestion, mood, and your overall health.
The gut-brain connection
The body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of receptors and enzymes involved in pain sensation, appetite, memory, and mood. Many researchers believe the ECS is the communication link between the gut and the brain that enables them to “speak” to each other.2
The ECS interacts with the body's central nervous system (CNS) and enteric nervous system (ENS). The CNS is the brain and spinal cord. The ENS extends from the esophagus to the rectum. The ENS is called the second brain because it uses the same receptors, neurons, and neurotransmitters that the CNS does – so the two brains speak the same language.
Within the ECS is an internal system of cannabinoid receptors, called CB1 and CB2. These receptors interact with cannabinoids, which are found in hemp, as well as in other plants such as black pepper, cloves, hops, ginseng, black truffles, and dark chocolate. What's more, your body actually makes cannabinoids (called endocannabinoids) that act on these receptors.3
Major functions of the ECS in your gut
The endocannabinoid system affects your gut health in three major ways.
- Modulates inflammation
The ECS apparently plays a key role in protecting the gut from inflammation. Both CB1 and CB2 receptors help modulate inflammatory responses when stimulated by certain cannabinoids.4
- Regulates digestive action
Gut motility is the contraction of muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. This contracting movement enables food to move through the digestive tract and ensures that nutrients are absorbed. Several cannabinoids found in plants (phytocannabinoids) stimulate the CB1 receptor. This calms nausea, slows emptying of the stomach, and reduces stomach acid. 5 Strong stimulation of the CB1 receptor will even make you hungry, which is primarily an effect of THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana that causes marijuana smokers to “get the munchies.
- Regulates communication with your brain
The ECS regulates the two-way communication between the gut and the brain.6 Changes in the brain related to stress or pain can alter gastrointestinal function. In addition, changes in your gut from inflammation or infection are communicated back to the brain via the ECS. This is important in maintaining bowel health and can even influence conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.
How can you support your ECS for a healthy gut?
Research is beginning to show that poor ECS health might play a role in the development of digestive health concerns.1 Diet and lifestyle factors likely promote the health of the ECS in the gut and elsewhere. Here are a few things you can do:
1. Regulate stress as much as possible
It's a two-way street between stress and the ECS. Although your endocannabinoid system helps balance your reaction to stress, chronic stress can lessen the ability of the ECS to do its job, which leaves you more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress. Read more about how stress is affecting your health.
2. Take a probiotic supplement
You probably already know that probiotics benefit digestive health – but they also support your ECS. One of the best-known probiotics, Lactobacillus acidophilus, modulates the ECS in the gut.7 Research is also starting to emerge on the beneficial effects of other probiotic strains on the ECS.
3. Eat dietary cannabinoids and other foods that support a healthy ECS
Fatty fish, nuts, and seeds provide the essential fats that are the building blocks of endocannabinoids. Also choose foods that contain phytocannabinoids, such as dark chocolate and black truffle.
Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage) contain a compound called indole-3-carbinol that is transformed in your gut into diindolylmethane (DIM), which acts positively on the CB2 receptors. Many herbs and spices, including black pepper, clove, cinnamon, oregano, basil, lavender, and rosemary, are rich in the phytocannabinoid beta-caryophyllene.8
4. Take a phytocannabinoid supplement
A supplement that includes phytocannabinoids from sources such as hemp, clove, black pepper, and hops can help balance the endocannabinoid system.
- Russo E. Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD): can this concept explain therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment-resistant conditions? Neuro Endocrinol Lett 2008;29(2):192-200.
- Sharkey K, Wiley J. The role of the endocannabinoid system in the brain-gut axis. Gastroenterology 2016;151(2):252-266.
- Pertwee R. Cannabinoid pharmacology: the first 66 years. Br J Pharmacol 2006;147(Supp 1):163-171.
- Hasenoehrl C, Storr M, Schicho R. Cannabinoids for treating inflammatory bowel diseases: where are we and where do we go? Expert Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol 2017;11(4):329-337.
- Izzo A, Sharkey K. Cannabinoids and the gut: new developments and emerging concepts. Pharmacol Ther 2010;126(1):21-38.
- Pertwee R. Cannabinoids and the gastrointestinal tract. Gut 2001;48:859-867.
- Rousseaux C, Thuru X, Gelot A, et al. Lactobacillus acidophilus modulates intestinal pain and induces opioid and cannabinoid receptors. Nat Med 2007;13(1):35-37.
- Fidyt K, Fiedorowicz A, Strz?da?a L, Szumny A. β?caryophyllene and β?caryophyllene oxide – natural compounds of anticancer and analgesic properties. Cancer Med 2016;5(10):3007-3017.