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Functional Food, the Microbiome, and the Endocannabinoid System

Updated: Jun 16

In this post, we discuss concepts related to functional food, the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and the microbiome. What is a functional food? What is the ECS and the microbiome? Does the gut really speak to the mind? And, how do cannabis and probiotics relate to them?


Functional Food

Both long-held belief and science offer credence that “food is medicine”. From the oft-quoted Father of Modern Medicine Hippocrates that “All disease begins in the gut” to the contemporary use of micronutrients like iodine and vitamins C and D to prevent goiter scurvy and rickets[i] --- food and its connection to health has been studied for centuries.

In the United States, “functional food” is a marketing term that can be useful for understanding foods nutritional profile. In Japan where the term originates, functional foods are a government recognized class of products (similar to the FDAs nutritional supplements system). In the 1980’s as a way to curb rising healthcare costs the Japanese government began to study links between food and medical science. As a result, the Food for Specified Health Uses (FOSHU) system was developed to approve foods that show documented clinical health benefits. FOSHU foods were marketed to healthy people as a preventative health strategy to improve blood pressure, cholesterol, mineral absorption, and gastrointestinal issues.

There are several definitions of functional foods with the common thread that most are considered “foods or dietary components that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition”.[ii] For example, non-fortified oats are a source of protein which is needed for multiple bodily functions and when eaten in certain amounts also reduce hypertension -- making it a “functional food” beyond its basic nutrition.

Part and parcel to functional foods --- probiotics are defined as beneficial bacteria promoting the growth of healthy intestinal flora. Research indicates that daily consumption of one hundred million to one billion viable probiotics has the potential to exert positive physiological results on the human body.[iv] Prebiotics are dietary fiber that act as food for probiotics and existing beneficial gut bacteria. Interestingly, dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao that is high in antioxidants and fiber can act as a prebiotic when fermented in the gut. Such fermentation has the potential to alter intestinal flora leading to an anti-inflammatory response.[v] As such, high quality dark chocolate could be considered a prebiotic functional food in and of itself.

When it comes to cannabis and its constituent compounds they potentially represent a new frontier for functional food ingredients. The FDA hearings on the use of cannabidiol (CBD) is evidence that the traditional food sector is keenly interested in the potential of cannabis as a food additive. Indeed, the approval of CBD would set a precedent for the use of other novel cannabinoids, as food additives or nutraceuticals -- which outside of the federal illegality of cannabis high in Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is part of the reason that the FDA must carefully consider actions on CBD. In general, a wider acceptance and use of cannabis or cannabinoids in food has the potential to create better standards, definitions, and the discovery of health benefits of these “ingredients”.


The Endocannabinoid System and the Microbiome

Functional foods are interesting due to their ability to potentially benefit the body --- especially in relation to ECS and the microbiome. Broadly, the ECS was discovered in an effort to explain the psychoactive results of THC on humans. The system maintains homeostasis in the body and is present in all animals with a spine. It comprises a system of receptor sites throughout the body and brain --most notably CB1 and CB2 with sites on the skin, immune cells, bone, fat tissue, liver, pancreas, skeletal muscle, heart, blood vessels, kidney, and the gastrointestinal tract. [vi] Initial research showed that CB1 and CB2 sites were the most numerous neurotransmitter receptors in the brain where they showed interaction with THC and CBD molecules, respectively. Continued research led to cascading findings that the ECS is an intricate, organized, and interrelated signaling system that creates and breakdowns complex chemicals including cannabinoids from plant sources and our own naturally produced endocannabinoids with significant implications to health. The ECS is known to modulate feeding behavior, pain, and stress --- where endocannabinoids are released as a means to respond to and bring the body back to a normal resting state.[vii]

The microbiome refers to the environment of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites beneficial or otherwise in the intestines and throughout the body. The current understanding of the microbiome comes in large part from the Human Microbiome Project. Launched in 2007, the international project sought to classify human bacterial communities and associate them with health or disease. Thousands of species of bacteria live on and in humans, with hundreds of species in the gut alone.[viii] What’s more is these bacteria have 150-200 times more genes than human genes allowing them to be activated almost immediately and behave in ways that human genes are not able.[ix] An imbalance of bacteria whether on the skin or in the gut may lead to disease. Similar to the ECS, scientific understanding of the microbiome and its impact on human health is quickly evolving with many open research questions. However, much initial research shows an important connection between the ECS and microbiome where diet among other things, plays an important role in overall health.


The Gut-Brain-ECS-Axis

Research shows that the ECS is the interface between the Central Nervous System (CNS)-- the brain and spinal cord -- and the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) -- a system of nerves running from the esophagus to the rectum.[x] CB1 and CB2 receptors are present throughout the gastrointestinal tract, particularly expressed in gut immune cells.[xi] The ENS is called the second-brain because it uses the same neurotransmitters, neurons, and receptors as the CNS.[xii] In this sense, because the ENS and CNS use the same vocabulary --- the gut very much speaks to the mind through a bidirectional signaling path of nerves, hormones, and inflammatory chemicals. Gut microbiota interact with the ECS in the intestines and the resulting ECS signaling communicates with the CNS and ENS.[xiii] It is estimated that up to 90% of the communication among the systems comes from the gut.[xiv] Thus, when considering the overall health of the ECS and its various components one may conclude that an imbalance of gut microbiota could lead to sub-optimal communication between the ECS, the ENS, and the CNS-- potentially leading to anything from Irritable Bowel Syndrome to Parkinson’s and depression -- and perhaps a reason why these diseases are often associated.

So, how do probiotics and cannabis relate specifically to the ECS and microbiome? The obvious and quick answer is that the ECS and microbiome are connected and thus compounds (whether bacteria or cannabinoids) interacting with one are likely to interact with the other. Multiple research studies show that probiotics improve gut inflammation, gut barrier function, and intestinal permeability which then affect endocannabinoid signaling. In one mouse study, intestinal cells treated with a probiotic Lactobacillus acidophilus resulted in an increase of CB2 receptor activity and thus pain relief.[xv] Additionally, according to Dr. Ethan Russo, THC has the ability to “stimulate the production of beneficial bacteria and suppresses the disease-causing bacteria”.[xvi] What this information and more points to is an intimate connection between our guts and our brain in part through the interface of the ECS --- where the importance of a healthy microbiome should not be underestimated.


Conclusion

Some have called the microbiome a “forgotten organ” because so many health recommendations in modern medicine have been made without taking this system into consideration. So if the microbiome has been “forgotten” perhaps the ECS could be considered the newly “remembered organ”! The ECS and microbiome evolved with humans over millions of years and science is just beginning to understand the full implications of these systems on health and disease. Once again diversity seems to be the key...diversity in our gut microbiome, our diets, our culture, forests, soils, and economic systems are all vital for the health of our world.


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OARA is a functional food company making products that supplement the endocannabinoid system and gut microbiome. OARA was not developed nor intended to treat or cure any disease. OARA probiotic cannabis dark chocolates offer a supplement to an already healthy diet and active lifestyle.

DISCLAIMER OF INFORMATION: THE INFORMATION PROVIDED HERIEN IS BASED ON WIDELY AVAILABLE AND PUBLICLY DISSEMINATED INFORMATION AND OARA CLAIMS NO SPECIFIC EXPERTISE IN THE HEALTH BENEFITS, DETRIMENTS, OR LACK THEREOF, OF PROBIOTICS, CANNABIS, OR CHOCOLATE. OARA PRODUCES A PRODUCT WITH THIS WIDELY AVAILABLE INFORMATION IN MIND IN THE HOPES THAT OUR CUSTOMERS FIND IT HELPFUL (and hopefully enjoyable!). OARA CANNOT AND DOES NOT GUARANTEE ANY SPECIFIC RESULTS THROUGH THE USE OF ANY OARA PRODUCTS. IF ANY NEGATIVE RESULTS OCCUR AFTER THE USE OF OARA PATIENTS SHOULD IMMEDIATELY DISCONTINUE USE AND CONSULT A PHYSICIAN.

[i] A Timeline of Nutritional Research. [ii] Bagchi D (ed). (2008). Neutraceutical and Functional Food Regulations. Elsevier: New York. [iii] Functional Foods. Editorial. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition,(2010). [iv] Probiotics in Food Systems: Significance and Emerging Strategies Towards Improved Viability and Delivery of Enhanced Beneficial Value Nutrients, (2019). [v] Cocoa and Dark Chocolate Polyphenols: From Biology to Clinical Applications. Frontiers in Immunology, (2017). [vi] Human Endocannabinoid System UCLA Health, (2020). [vii] The Mind Gut Conversation Series. Emeran Meyer, (2019). [viii] Gut Microbiota Info. Gut Microbiome for Health, (2020). [ix] Dr. Emeran Mayer: "The Mind-Gut Connection". (2016) [x] Endocannabinoids — at the crossroads between the gut microbiota and host metabolism. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, (2015). [xi] Review article: Endocannabinoids and their receptors in the enteric nervous system. Literature review in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, (2005). [xii] The Enteric Nervous System and Gastrointestinal Innervation: Integrated Local and Central Control. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, (2014). [xiii] CBD and Parkinson’s Disease. Project CBD, (2017). [xiv] Think Twice: How the Gut's "Second Brain" Influences Mood and Well-Being. Scientific American, (2010). [xv] Endocannabinoids in the gastrointestinal tract. American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, (2016). [xvi] CBD, The Entourage Effect and the Microbiome. Project CBD, (2019).


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