Cannabis’s value as a tonic for sufferers of stomach trouble is well-known, as anyone treating Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome with marijuana can attest. But marijuana may play a more central role in regulating gut health than previously thought—for everyone, not just those treating debilitating diseases.
The secret lies in the similarity between cannabis and hot chili peppers.
A key ingredient in chili peppers is a chemical called capsaicin. According to new research from scientists at the University of Connecticut, mice suffering from Type 1 diabetes were suddenly cured of their ailments after they were fed capsaicin. The reason why wasn’t the pepper itself, but a molecule created once the capsaicin entered the body.
When the capsaicin was ingested, it bonded to a particular receptor, which then sent a signal to cells to start making a molecule called anandamide. Anandamide is an endocannabinoid—a compound produced by the body that’s similar in function to those found in cannabis (which we call phytocannabinoids). Once the body starts producing anandamide, inflammation is reduced.
As the researchers discovered, “It was the anandamide that caused the immune system to calm down. And the researchers found they could get the same gut-calming results by feeding the mice anandamide directly.”
Whether consuming cannabis would deliver the same result isn’t yet clear, though the anecdotal evidence is encouraging.
Either way, researchers will be investigating, as this means cannabis or cannabis-derived treatments could be effective in treating colitis, diabetes and a host of other diseases. (The anandamide discovery could also shed light on why people whose diets include significant use of chili peppers can expect longer life expectancies.)
“I’m hoping to work with the public health authority in Colorado to see if there has been an effect on the severity of colitis among regular users of edible weed,” senior author Pramod Srivastava told Inverse. “If the epidemiological data shows a significant change [since marijuana legalization in 2012], that would make a testable case that anandamide or other cannabinoids could be used as therapeutic drugs to treat certain disorders of the stomach, pancreas, intestines and colon.”
These findings also bolster the concept of the “mind-body connection.”
For years, scientists were unsure why the brain and the stomach shared some of the same endocannabinoid receptors. The anandamide breakthrough suggests that the brain, immune system and stomach all “share a common language,” Srivastava said.
Other foods associated with anandamide production include truffles and chocolate, two delectable treats which may also complement cannabis consumption well. As always, more research is necessary.