Written by: Colleen Gerson
“The brain and the gut speak the same language.” – Ethan Russo, M.D.
If you follow the latest wellness trends, you’ve probably noticed a lot of talk about the importance of feeding our gut bacteria for a healthy body and mind. Probiotics, pre-biotics, and fermented foods are super hot these days. Why?
At least 90% of the living cells in our bodies actually aren’t ‘human’, but belong to the microbes that live on and within us. Of the approximately 38,000,000,000,000 (38 trillion) microorganisms in our bodies, the majority are located in our gut. This vast ecosystem of little beings is known as the microbiome, a microscopic ecosystem of interconnected life forms transforming nutrients from one form to another, fundamentally influencing all aspects of our health — including even the brain.
This is why some are calling the gut our “second brain.” In some circles it’s even considered our first brain — since it’s far more ancient than the advanced parts of the human brain, and its influences on the rest of the body are profound.
Turns out that the gut and brain actually communicate with each other, mostly via the crucial highway of the vagus nerve, but also via the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). With cannabis and hemp becoming more popular in the holistic wellness movement, this discovery couldn’t have come at a more potent time.
The Gut: Gateway to You
Your gut microbiome affects your immune system, genetic expression, weight, mental and emotional health – essentially who we are and how we show up in the world.
The digestive tract and its vast population of microbes is a portal into the center of our being — literally, the gatekeeper between self and not-self — and it influences every aspect of the bodymind.
When it’s out of balance we can easily lose our connection to our innate self and intuitive gut sense. (This is why gut health is a primary key to the wellness counseling work I do, as it is a foundational access point for far-reaching healing and connection.)
Cannabinoids: Mind-Body Connectors
New research on the endocannabinoid system is also uncovering that there is a vital link between the ECS and gut health.
The ECS’s receptors are highly concentrated in the brain, gut, and pelvis, all working together to maintain homeostasis throughout the body. Researchers are finding evidence that the ECS is actually a major link between the gut and the brain, enabling them to communicate with each other.
The endocannabinoid system is involved in regulating food intake — especially fat intake — as well as digestive motility, nausea, intestinal inflammation, gut permeability, cancer cell proliferation, and complex interactions with probiotic bacteria of the intestines.
Supporting the ECS with phytocannabinoids from cannabis or hemp is showing promise for those suffering from a variety of conditions, including IBS, IBD, autoimmune conditions, cancer, and more.
In rats, fasting increases the small intestine’s production of the endocannabinoid anandamide (known as the “bliss molecule” for its powerful effect on mood). With at least 70% of our serotonin being produced in the gut (not the brain), and plenty of research showing that gut microbial balance influences mood and mental health, we are sure to discover even more powerful links between the ECS, gut and brain in the near future.
At this point we know that the ECS affects the digestive system in the following ways.
- Regulating Digestion: Intestinal motility is the coordinated, rhythmic transit of food moving from the esophagus to the stomach to the intestines to the anus, which ensures that nutrients have proper time to be absorbed. Several plant-based cannabinoids stimulate the CB1 receptor, which calms nausea, helps halt tumor growth, slows stomach emptying, improves nutrient absorption, and reduces stomach acid. Strong stimulation of the CB1 receptor will also make us hungry, aka “getting the munchies.”
- Modulating Inflammation: It turns out that the ECS plays a critical role in protecting the gut from inflammation, and both CB1 and CB2 receptors modulate inflammatory responses when stimulated by certain cannabinoids. Inflammation is increasingly implicated in depression, but that inflammation isn’t just in the brain. When we see inflammation and permeability in the gut, we often also find inflammation in the brain and permeability with the blood brain barrier, so calming the fire in the gut can help improve mental power, nutrient absorption and assimilation, and all bodily processes.
- Bridging communication with the brain: The ECS is a two-way communication link between our gut and brain. Stress or pain registered in the brain communicates to the gut and affects gut function (ie butterflies or nervous belly), just as inflammation and imbalances in the gut communicate and alter our mental and emotional balance and expression.
So nourishing our gut and supporting our ECS in tandem could be a profound gateway to healing and finding more balance in body and mind. The influential cannabis researcher Ethan Russo writes, “it is increasingly apparent that proper dietary choices encompassing prebiotic vegetables and fermented foods may play important roles in future therapeutics targeting the ECS.”
These are exciting times to see science talking about the benefits of pre- and probiotic-rich foods as therapeutic tools, looking beyond isolated drug compounds, and moving towards a more whole-istic and root-cause approach to supporting wellbeing via the endocannabinoid system. We’re moving back to the roots in so many ways. Feeding and supporting gut integrity and balance, supports the endocannabinoid system, and vice versa — helping to balance body systems for greater homeostasis and less dis-ease.
Lifestyle Tips for Gut & ECS Balance
How can we support our gut-brain connection via our endocannabinoid system?
- Get Cultured: Eat cultured foods daily, like sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, natto, tempeh, miso, kvass, etc., or at the very least take a quality broad-spectrum probiotic supplement, like Seed or Megasporebiotic, daily. Cultured foods are packed with pre- and probiotics, aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and are more powerful than any commercial supplement (many of which are low quality). Probiotics help support a balanced ecology in our microbiome, decreasing pathogens and inflammation, and Lactobacillus Acidophilus in particular modulates the ECS in the gut.
- Fat as essential fuel: Essential fatty acids are the building blocks of endocannabinoids, so consuming healthy fats daily is needed to efficiently utilize cannabinoids and support this system as well as our brain, hormones, and every body cell. Examples include a quality omega-3 fish oil, wild fatty fish like sardines and anchovies, raw nuts and seeds, avocado, olive oil, grassfed ghee, and coconut oil. Slather it on, baby.
- Cannabinoid & terpene-rich foods and herbs: like dark chocolate (organic and fair trade of course), black truffle, black pepper, clove, cinnamon, oregano, basil, lavender, and rosemary. Jazz up your cooking or make teas with these herbs. Cruciferous veggies (like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage) contain indole-3-carbinol which turns into DIM in the gut, supporting CB2 receptors (think gut and hormone balance, detoxification, anti-inflammatory).
- Mastering the nervous system & managing stress: supplementing with quality broad or full spectrum hemp as an oil, tincture, vape pen, etc. – whatever delivery works best for you – to regulate your busy mind, destress and unwind. Daily self-care practices like unplugging from your phone for an hour or more to take a bath, read, write, be in nature, make love, create, breathe. The gut is an integral part of our nervous system, and stress increases gut permeability, inflammation, motility, and even changes our gut microbiota. Committing to the tools and allies that work for you, to slow down and connect to your own daily self-care, is a must and not just a buzzword.
- Other herbal allies: dandelion root tea, burdock, ginger, turmeric, peppermint, and digestive bitters before or after meals are incredible allies for soothing our gut, reducing inflammation and pathogens, and supporting a healthy ecosystem for smooth digestion and elimination of toxins.
So we love your guts, and we hope you’ll show love to them too – by choosing some gut-nourishing pre- and probiotic rich foods, boosting your omega-3s, and weaving in whole plant herbal allies to support you in gut, body, and mind.
- Russo, Ethan B. “Cannabis Therapeutics and the Future of Neurology.” Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, Frontiers Media S.A., 18 Oct. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6200872/.
- Russo, Ethan B. “Beyond Cannabis: Plants and the Endocannabinoid System.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, Cell Press, Vol 37, No 7, Elsevier Ltd., July 2016.
- Bauer, Brent. “How the Endocannabinoid System Connects Your Gut and Your Brain.” Thorne, 10 Oct. 2018, www.thorne.com/take-5-daily/article/how-the-endocannabinoid-system-connects-your-gut-and-your-brain.
- Izzo, Angelo A, and Keith A Sharkey. “Cannabinoids and the Gut: New Developments and Emerging Concepts.” Pharmacology & Therapeutics, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20117132. Full article via http://www.advancedholistichealth.org/PDF_Files/endocannabinoid%20system%20in%20GI%20disease.pdf
- DiPatrizio, Nicholas V. “Endocannabinoids in the Gut.” Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., 1 Feb. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4940133/.
- Hasenoehrl, Carina, et al. “Cannabinoids for Treating Inflammatory Bowel Diseases: Where Are We and Where Do We Go?” Expert Review of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Taylor & Francis, 3 Apr. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28276820.
Written by: Colleen Gerson