I’m not exactly the curmudgeonly sort; in fact I’m pretty amiable and forward-thinking most of the time. But when I heard about a body-produced substance that mimics THC – so much so that it was named after the blissful effects it purportedly produces – well, I wanted more of that. Perhaps there is a way to turn on the spout that releases the happy stuff called Anandamide, aka “the molecule of wonder.”
For cannabis-science neophytes, Anandamide is classified as an endocannabinoid, your body’s own version of cannabis. The irony about Anandamide (and other endocannabinoids) is that researchers really didn’t go fishing for these molecules until the late 1980s when they observed that THC fit like a glove into special receptors in the brain and central nervous system. So they set about to examine the theory that if we have this complex network of receptors, we must produce some kind of endogenous substances as keys to the receptor locks. Finally, in 1992, anandamide was discovered and promptly named it after the Sanskrit word for divine joy. (Also, the chemical name for anandamide is Arachidonoylethanolamide and who wants to try tripping all over those syllables? )
Producing Anandamide and Breaking it Back Down
Anandamide is a fragile molecule produced upon demand in the brain by a synthesis process within neurons called a condensation reaction (the combination of two molecules to become a single molecule). Once produced, it’s quickly broken down into other compounds by a degrading enzyme called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH). Wash, rinse, repeat.
Now if FAAH doesn’t work too fast, anandamide will hang around longer in the body and promote the beneficial effects that the bliss molecule is known for. Some people, by virtue of genetic mutation, have the ability to block FAAH from degrading anandamide. In turn, these fortunate few maintain higher levels of anandamide and they enjoy less anxiety and fearfulness than the rest of us. And that’s because anandamide, as the namesake for “joy”, is linked to an elevation in mood and happiness.
But the potential for anandamide goes beyond having a happy day.
Health Benefits of the Joy Molecule
Since anandamide synthesizes in areas of the brain where memory, motivation, cognitive processes and movement control are managed, it can influence physiological systems such as pain, appetite regulation, pleasure and reward. Additionally, anandamide has been shown to promote neurogenesis (1), the formation of new nerve cells, and to slow cancer cell proliferation (2).
Brain Research, Mice and Men – Who Moved My Cheese?
Research suggests that anandamide can remodel the process of brain reward circuitry. For example, a study on mice from 2017 (3) tested its effects on motivation and reward. With different possibilities of choice and after receiving an injection of anandamide, the mice were able to choose more quickly and to choose the best solution.
Anandamide is also known as a molecule that helps you to forget – but in a good way. One study (4) at the University of Calgary compared a group of genetically happy humans with rodents that had been injected with the same rogue gene, finding that had higher levels of anandamide led to a greater ability to erase fear- based memories. The reason underlying this strategic forgetfulness is that higher levels of anandamide allow for greater connectivity between the prefrontal cortex (the brain’s highest-level center of cognitive processing) and the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for recalling painful, often tragic memories. The amygdala’s stubborn retention of bad experiences gets in the way of cognitive performance and emotional health in huge ways throughout a lifetime – just ask any PTSD survivor.
Boosting Anandamide Yourself
Besides choosing our own parents to inherit a lucky genetic mutation, how can we boost our levels of anandamide naturally?
CBD plays an interesting and complex role in the brain. As mentioned earlier in this blog, THC fits perfectly into the endocannabinoid receptors found throughout the brain and central nervous system, releasing the psychoactive properties it’s known for. But CBD (Cannabidiol), the non-psychoactive and second most abundant cannabinoid, has very little binding compatibility with the endocannabinoid receptors.
However, CBD is now known to increase levels of anandamide in the body. CBD inhibits the FAAH enzyme responsible for breaking down the endocannabinoid. In turn – voila! – anandamide stays onboard in higher levels to release its positive mood enhancing effects.
As far as exercise goes, I must confess that I’m one of the afflicted; I love distance running (although my gait is more like a shuffle these days.) I am hooked on the after-affects that exercise conveys, the pleasant buzz that has long been termed an “endorphin rush.”
But the endorphin theory is losing ground as researchers have discovered that exercise (of at least 30 minutes duration) facilitates the production of anandamide. Endorphin molecules, it turns out, are too large to cross the blood brain barrier to enter the brain. So the whole “runners high” attributed to endorphins may in fact be unfounded and we need to adjust our vocabulary to credit anandamide instead. Who knew?
Ok, if you weren’t too keen on that last section on exercise, here’s some terrific news. Eating chocolate boosts anandamide in two ways - by stimulating the endocannabinoid receptors and by blocking anandamide’s breakdown. In fact, some researchers say that the simplest way to increase anandamide levels is by eating dark chocolate.
Chocolate has over 300 known chemical compounds including a significant amount of a substance called theobromine which not only boosts anandamide levels but has evidence of both calming the brain and increasing neural activity. Sweet!
To be clear, the chocolate best for healthy consumption is high quality dark chocolate with higher percentages of cocoa, not the cheap, highly sugared chocolate products that are pushed on kids at Halloween. If you really want to be a purist, the effects are supposedly even greater if you chew cocoa husks.
Little wonder why chocolate is the number one food craving.
Certain animals, namely dogs and pigs, go wild when they sniff out a fungus delicacy called truffles. Scientists have discovered that anandamide can be found in black truffles (Tuber melanosporum). Interestingly, truffles produce anandamide, but they don’t contain any accompanying internal receptors that would trigger a biological effect. Perhaps, researchers think, truffles develop anandamide as a means to attract animals to eat it, a process that releases their spores and allows them to propagate.
If you haven’t had a personal culinary experience with truffles, it’s probably because they are difficult to cultivate, and most are found in the wild by truffle hunters and truffle-hunting dogs. So – ouch! - they are expensive $50-$125 per ounce. On my budget, I’ll stick with chocolate, thank you.
In the Zone
When I’m doing something that I really love – like journaling or playing Chopin - I get lost in it and time fades away. It’s a state of heightened concentration, performance and focus called “flow “or of being “in the zone.” If you haven’t heard of flow, you’re not watching enough Oprah. In such a state, the brain releases an abundance of chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and our friend anandamide.
No wonder we’re advised to follow our bliss – it’s because bliss begets itself.