Anandamide is a molecule which is named after the Sanskrit word for ‘bliss’ or ‘divine happiness’, Ananda. Within the body, it behaves in a very similar way to the THC in cannabis and plays an essential role in many of our biological functions and emotions.
This fact has even led some people to nickname anandamide the “bliss molecule.”
What is Anandamide?
Anandamide was initially discovered in Israel in 1992 by scientists researching the effects of THC on the brain. In the laboratory of Raphael Mechoulam, the godfather of cannabis research, it was theorized that if our brains have receptors which can be affected by THC, then our bodies must produce similar chemicals of their own.
Of course, this theory proved to be correct, and this discovery became the basis of much of what we know about the endocannabinoid system today.
When it was discovered, anandamide was originally called arachidonylethanolamide, a description of its molecular shape and structure. Its name was later changed to anandamide, and it is sometimes referred to as AEA for short.
Anandamide is a molecule which is naturally produced by the human body. It is a long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, and a crucial component of the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system has a vital role in regulating many of the body’s biological functions and maintaining a state of homeostasis. Homeostasis can be simply defined as “the maintenance of a constant internal environment by an organism.” It includes the control of body temperature, blood pressure, and water balance, among other things.
Anandamide is a ligand, meaning that it works by binding with a specific receptor. Ligands and receptors are designed to fit together like a lock and key to elicit a particular response within the body.
Anandamide influences homeostasis by binding with receptors known as CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors exist primarily in the brain and nervous system, while CB2 receptors are found elsewhere, especially in the immune system.
The high abundance of cannabinoid receptors throughout the body suggests that their role is of the utmost importance in the maintenance of health. The fact that these receptors are located in many different systems also means that endocannabinoids like anandamide have a wide variety of physiological functions.
The Role of Anandamide in the Body
When anandamide binds with CB1 and CB2 receptors, it activates them and triggers a number of different reactions throughout the body. It is also capable of activating another type of receptor known as type 1 vanilloid receptors (VR1) where it is believed to help in the destruction of cancerous cells.
Because anandamide is a fatty acid, it is fat soluble and can easily pass through the blood-brain barrier. In the nervous system, it acts as a neurotransmitter, facilitating the transmission of signals between nerve cells. It has a role in regulating the transport of dopamine and calcium molecules, both of which play a crucial part in nerve conduction.
In the brain, anandamide influences motor function, the perception of pain, and memory. Small amounts of anandamide are thought to be beneficial for the memory, while more substantial amounts can cause forgetfulness. For this reason, scientists have proposed that using low doses of THC (which behaves in a very similar way to anandamide) could be beneficial in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
In the cardiovascular system, anandamide works as a vasodilator, meaning that it relaxes the walls of blood vessels and allows them to expand. This response is something which happens naturally when we get too hot, allowing our blood to move closer to the skin’s surface and be cooled. Dilation and constriction of the blood vessels is also one of the major ways in which our blood pressure is controlled.
Anandamide is also involved in the process of an embryo implanting in the lining of the uterus, establishing the very first connections between mother and baby during pregnancy. It is closely related to another group of molecules called prostaglandins, which are essential for maintaining a healthy pregnancy and also triggering uterine contractions during labor.
Prostaglandins are also involved in the inflammatory response – one possible explanation for the anti-inflammatory effects of anandamide itself as well as cannabis and CBD.
The role of anandamide in the body can be summarized as follows:
- Acts as a neurotransmitter to affect mood, memory, and appetite
- Influences perception of painful stimuli
- Dilates the blood vessels
- Plays a role in fertility and pregnancy
- Contributes to the destruction of cancerous cells
Anandamide and the Stress Response
Researchers have found that exposure to stressful conditions can increase the production of anandamide within the body. One 2012 study published in Neuropsychopharmacology took 71 healthy volunteers and exposed them to acute stress by methods including a mock job interview and performing an arithmetic task in front of two “unsmiling” assessors while viewing themselves on a television monitor.
The subjects also underwent a non-stressful “control” interview in which they discussed hobbies and interests with a friendly researcher.
The subjects’ anandamide levels were measured after each of these encounters. The subjects also filled in questionnaires about their mood and anxiety levels.
The researchers found that, following the stressful encounters, the subjects’ anandamide levels increased significantly. Interestingly, more significant increases we seen in Caucasian subjects compared with their African-American and Asian counterparts. Anandamide levels also increased more in male subjects compared to females.
The results of this study suggest that anandamide is released under highly stressful conditions, and may offer protection against the effects of anxiety.
Another 2012 study on endocannabinoids and depression found that women with extreme anxiety had lower levels of anandamide than their healthy counterparts. These findings suggest that while acute stress causes anandamide levels to rise, long-term anxiety appears to have the opposite effect.
Anandamide and THC: Similarities and Differences
The molecular shape of anandamide is extremely similar to that of THC, one of the cannabinoids found in cannabis. This similarity means that when consumed by eating or smoking, THC molecules can bind with CB1 receptors and influence the body just as anandamide can.
This ability to influence the brain and nervous system is what gives THC its psychoactive properties as well as its medicinal benefits such as relieving pain and nausea, relaxing the muscles, and stimulating the appetite. These benefits are further enhanced by another cannabinoid called CBD which, although it does not bind with CB1 receptors directly, increases the action of THC in the endocannabinoid system.
One of the critical differences between anandamide and THC is the rate at which they are broken down by the body. Anandamide is a fragile molecule and is quickly broken down in cells by an enzyme called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH). The fact that this molecule is broken down so quickly is the reason we are not walking around in a state of never-ending bliss or euphoria.
On the other hand, THC is a much stronger molecule and can remain in the body for several hours after consumption. Furthermore, its metabolites such as THC-COOH can remain in the body for days, or even weeks, depending on how frequently and how heavily marijuana is used.
Can You Boost Your Anandamide Levels?
With all of its beneficial effects, you may be wondering whether there is anything you can do to boost your anandamide levels. The good news is that a few foods do contain anandamide and may affect your body in a similar way.
Chocolate is packed full of beneficial compounds including anandamide. Could this be one of the reasons why tucking into a few squares feels so good?
If you want to try boosting your anandamide with chocolate, avoid milk chocolate which has a high fat and sugar content and lower levels of anandamide. Instead, opt for a quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa content; or better still, try some raw cacao nibs.
Another food which contains anandamide is black truffles. In fact, these famous fungi contain not just anandamide, but a number of other endocannabinoids too. Although truffles are far too expensive to make up a regular part of most people’s diets, they can provide a delicious and healthy treat on special occasions.
It has also been suggested that short-term exposure to cold temperatures could increase anandamide levels. Try taking a cold shower each day, and you may be surprised by how good you feel!
What is Anandamide? Final Thoughts
Anandamide has many vital functions throughout the body, including relieving inflammation and pain, influencing memory, and protecting against cancer to name just a few. It is, therefore, no surprise that interest in this molecule has been growing steadily since its discovery just a few decades ago.
There is no doubt that, even now, we still have a lot to learn about this versatile molecule and its potential benefits. However, with so many scientists now focusing their attention on the endocannabinoid system, our understanding is growing all the time.