In the late 1980s, receptors were found in the brain for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the primary psychoactive component in marijuana. But since THC doesn’t naturally occur in the body, the presence of these receptors puzzled scientists. The mystery was solved a few years later with the discovery of arachidonylethanolamide, later called anandamide.
Anandamide is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that binds to the THC receptors. It’s been called the “bliss molecule,” aptly named after ananda, the Sanskrit word for “joy, bliss, or happiness.” It is considered an endocannabinoid — a substance produced in the body that binds to cannabinoid receptors.
Anandamide is a lipid mediator that acts as an endogenous ligand of CB1 receptors. These receptors are also the primary molecular target responsible for the pharmacological effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in Cannabis sativa. Several studies demonstrate that anandamide exerts an overall modulatory effect on the brain reward circuitry. Several reports suggest its involvement in the addiction-producing actions of other abused drugs, and it can also act as a behavioral reinforcer in animal models of drug abuse.
A study at the University of Calgary compared a group of genetically happy humans with rodents that had been injected with the same rogue gene, finding both mice and men had higher levels of anandamide and a greater ability to extinguish fear based memories.
Both groups shared greater connectivity between the cognitive planning centre, the prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for remembering emotions, in particular fear. The implication being that better communication between these two key centres leads to lower anxiety levels and increased emotional stability.
Effects of Anandamide
Anandamide’s effects can occur in either the central or peripheral nervous system. These distinct effects are mediated primarily by CB1 cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system, and CB2 cannabinoid receptors in the periphery. (2) The latter are mainly involved in functions of the immune system. Anandamide has many effects in the body, including appetite regulation, reward, cell regulation, memory, pain relief, and mood. Because CB1 and CB2 receptors are so widespread, it is possible that anandamide has more effects on the body that have not yet been discovered.
Pain and inflammation
A large body of evidence now exists to substantiate that the endocannabinoid, anandamide, activates TRPV1 receptors.The activation of TRPV1 receptors by anandamide has potential implications in the treatment of inflammatory, respiratory and cardiovascular disorders. The relative importance of anandamide as a physiological and/or pathophysiological TRPV1 receptor agonist in comparison to other potential candidates has yet to be revealed.
Early stage embryo
Anandamide is also important for implantation of the early stage embryo in its blastocyst form into the uterus. Therefore, cannabinoids such as Δ9-THC might influence processes during the earliest stages of human pregnancy.
Exercise and Anandamine
Most people associate the buzz felt after running with what’s been termed as an ‘endorphin rush’. But that’s only part of the story. Scientists have found that after 30 minutes of exercise anandamide levels increase. Assistant Professor of Biology Greg Gerdeman describes how ‘in one study, we found that the increase of feelings of wellbeing in patients was tightly correlated to levels of anandamide in their bloodstream. So we started talking about anandamide as a neurobiological reward for running. It makes you feel good.”
It’s no surprise that one way of stimulating the endocannabinoid system is through the introduction of botanical cannabinoids into the body derived from the cannabis plant. As mentioned previously, THC fits perfectly into the endocannabinoid receptors found throughout the brain and central nervous system, creating the high or stoned effect. It’s a different story though when it comes to CBD or Cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive, second most abundant cannabinoid found in cannabis. CBD has very little binding affinity with the endocannabinoid receptors, and yet scientists have observed that its administration leads to increased anandamide levels.
They realised that CBD inhibits the FAAH enzyme responsible for breaking down anandamide in the body. So in a similar vein to our genetic variant subjects, less FAAH means more anandamide stays in the body for longer, with potentially mood boosting and anxiety reducing effects. This is backed up by research including a small pilot study on subjects with social anxiety that showed CBD could reduce feelings of discomfort and cognitive impairment during a simulated public speaking test.
Chocolate contains a compound that prevents breakdown of amandamine
Compounds, such as N-acylethanolamines, that prevent the breakdown of anandamide have also been found in chocolate. Perhaps part of the pleasure we get from eating chocolate comes from the effect that the anandamide and N-acylethanolamines it contains has upon our brains.
Analgesic – Relieves pain.
Angiogenic – Causes new blood vessels to form from pre-existing blood vessels.
Anti-inflammatory – Reduces inflammation systemically.
Anti-Proliferative – Inhibits cancer cell growth.
Anxiolytic – Relieves anxiety.
Euphoriant – Produces feelings of euphoria, promotes happiness and relaxation.
Neurogenic – Promotes the growth of new brain cells. Specifically within the Hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for memory and spatial awareness
Currently Being Studied For
Angiogenesis: Anandamide is unique among cannabinoids for its ability to cause blood cells to split and form new blood cells. This process is known as angiogenesis and its proper functioning is crucial to fighting off the spread of cancer due to the necessity of oxygen, nutrients, and bodily waste removal that come with it.
Anxiety: Anandamide, like THC, has been shown to reduce anxiety. This 2009 study, while done on mice, still sheds plenty of light on the mechanisms that AEA uses to reduce mental stress and anxiety in those experiencing it.
Cancer: As early as 1998, Anandamide had been identified as an anti-proliferative compound. This means that, like most cannabinoids, Anandamide helps slow the growth and spread of cancerous cells. Specifically the 1998 study looked at its role in inhibiting the proliferation of breast cancer cells. A more recent study from 2007 showed that AEA not only suppressed the growth of tumors it also spurred the formation of new blood cells. If that wasn’t enough Anandamide also induces COX-2-dependant cell death, a type of apoptosis that helps control the growth of cancerous cells. Specifically, AEA was found to do this in apoptosis resistant colon-cancer cells.
Memory Consolidation: Anandamide has been shown to , a process where things in the short term memory get transferred into the long term memory. This gives Anandamide a very unique and important role in allowing people to function normally and to build on their prior knowledge, rather than having to relearn the same things constantly. You can think of memory consolidation as a fancy way to say learning. This same study emphasized the anti-anxiety effects of AEA.