We take a lot of medicine to affect our weight, mental health, blood pressure, and dozens of other systems throughout our bodies. Still, one of the best indicators of overall health is already within us… gut health.
Our gut microbiome – the billions of bacteria and other organisms living in our intestines – affect our nerves, our blood sugar, weight gain and loss, and our moods. In fact, the vast majority of the cells in your body aren’t strictly “you”; they’re just hitching a ride.
Before you freak out, however, you have to understand that, for the most part, our body wants them there. A healthy gut biome lowers systemic inflammation, keeps depression and anxiety at bay, and is the crux of your immune system. While the brain and gut are connected through neurological pathways, the endocannabinoid system also links them. As cannabis products increase in legality and accessibility, there’s never been a better time to examine this link and how it can positively affect your health.
Gut health 101
When we eat a primarily poor diet – highly refined foods, seed oils, and lots of sugar – our gut biome adapts by filling with bacteria that digest those things. While it helps us deal with our poor dietary choices, these bacteria do a number on our health through a variety of unpleasant mechanisms:
- Leaky gut is a disorder that, through constant inflammation, allows bacteria to leak through the lining of the intestines and into the bloodstream. This causes inflammation throughout the body, leading to everything from headaches and fatigue to joint pain and digestive issues.
- Lowered gut motility is the slowing down of the contractions that move digested food along. These contractions – called peristalsis – normally move at a constant rate, but too much bad bacteria or too little good bacteria can slow or speed up this process, leading to chronic diarrhea or constipation.
- Inflammation in the gut can lead to reduced communication with the brain, increasing the incidence of anxiety, depression, difficulty thinking, and other mental health disorders. This link is one reason why people who suffer from anxiety have an increased incidence of irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders.
While poor digestive health can be the root of these problems, the direct issue is the disruption in the link between the gut and brain. The first step to fixing your gut health is to make your diet healthier and more suited to a healthy biome:
- Reduce processed food dramatically – almost all seed oils like canola or vegetable oil are pro-inflammatory and wreak havoc on the gut.
- Eat more fiber through natural foods, like vegetables and fruit.
- Use healthy fats, like coconut oil, olive oil, and real butter, as these contain the fatty acids needed to decrease the permeability of the intestinal lining and improve the strength of the cells in your gut.
- Limit your sugar intake, as too much sugar encourages the overgrowth of bad bacteria and has a direct effect on your mental health and insulin sensitivity.
- Include more fermented foods like tofu, kimchi, and sauerkraut, as these prebiotic foods feed the healthy bacteria in your gut.
Once your diet is on its way to being sorted, you can focus on other means to improve your gut/brain connection, and that’s where the endocannabinoid system (ECS) comes into play.
Using the ECS to improve gut/brain connection
The ECS connects our brain and gut through a network from your digestive tract, through your body and up into your central nervous system. Along with regulating multiple different systems along the way, the ECS works on many CB-1 and CB-2 receptors in the gut:
- Cannabinoids interact with CB-1 receptors to reduce leaky gut, preventing the release of lipopolysaccharides that increase inflammation throughout the body, which is the most prominent indicator of leaky gut syndrome.
- Interaction at CB-2 sites increase or decrease gut motility, preventing diarrhea and constipation, and improving regularity.
- Both CB-1 and CB-2 receptors seem to play a role in gut-brain signaling of multiple different indicators, but specifically, the sensation of satiety, improving weight loss efforts.
- ECS receptors in the gut play an important role in mental health, improving mood in particular. This is largely due to the fact that the small intestine secretes a hormone called anandamide that makes you feel good, and this increases dramatically during fasting. It can be affected by intaking foods and herbal supplements that increase endocannabinoids, which improve your mood.
- Cannabinoids reduce the expression of TNF-Alpha, an inflammatory cytokine that damages bone, cartilage, and prompts cell death across the body.
With all the good that cannabinoids do in the body, it’s absolutely worth the effort to increase our intake of them in addition to a healthy diet. You can boost your cannabinoid intake through diet, including:
- Herbs like echinacea, ginseng, cinnamon, and black pepper
- Plants, especially cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale
- Fatty foods like chocolate, fish oil, and fatty, cold-water fish like sardines and salmon
Once your diet is in order, you can add in CBD in various forms to boost the effectiveness of your gut health efforts.
- CBD extracts, like isolate powders, are only CBD. They provide all the benefits of CBD without THC or the plant terpenes that exist in the hemp leaves themselves. These are great for all the benefits that CBD offers with 0 chance of a psychoactive effect
- Broad-spectrum CBD oil still has the terpenes, but no THC, and there is increasing evidence that the terpenes – chemicals that give the plant its flavor and smell – increase the effectiveness of CBD as a whole
- Full-spectrum CBD includes trace amounts of THC – usually less than .3% – along with the CBD and terpenes. There is thought that the full range of available phytochemicals in hemp plants, called the entourage effect, is necessary to get the maximum benefit from cannabis-derived products.
By adding in CBD, in whichever form you choose, you supplement your body’s ECS and improve the link between your gut and brain, and with that, you gain the benefits that this connection provides. Regardless of how you supplement CBD, however, you will not get very far if your diet and stress levels aren’t in order first.
Work out regularly, limit your processed foods, and boost your intake of a healthy, whole food diet. Increase your prebiotic intake with fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir, and add in natural sources of CBD with foods like black pepper, cruciferous vegetables, and – as if you needed a reason – more chocolate. Keeping all of these elements of digestive health in order will have your brain thanking your gut for feeling its best.