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.
Eventually, anandamide was found to do a lot more than produce a state of heightened happiness. It’s synthesized in areas of the brain that are important in memory, motivation, higher thought processes, and movement control. It plays an important role in pain, appetite, and fertility. It also helps put the brakes on cancer cell proliferation.
By increasing neurogenesis — the formation of new nerve cells — anandamide exhibits both anti-anxiety and antidepressant properties. Anandamide, like all neurotransmitters, is fragile and breaks down quickly in the body which is why it doesn’t produce a perpetual state of bliss.
Anandamide, Marijuana, And Memory
Dr. Gary L. Wenk is a leading authority on the consequences of chronic brain inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease. He has spent years investigating whether smoking marijuana can prevent both normal age-related memory loss and that caused by Alzheimer’s. He has been surprised and encouraged to find that marijuana seems to protect against memory decline that comes with age.
According to Dr. Wenk, the great abundance of anandamide receptors is indicative of this neurotransmitter’s importance for regulating brain function. He’s found that stimulating the brain’s marijuana receptors can protect the brain by reducing brain inflammation and encouraging neurogenesis. He contends that, later in life, marijuana might actually help the aging brain rather than harm it.
“Ordinarily, we do not view marijuana as being good for our brain and certainly not for making memories,” Wenk observes. “How could a drug that clearly impairs memory while people are under its sway protect their brains from the consequences of aging? The answer likely has everything to do with the way that young and old brains function and a series of age-related changes in brain chemistry. When we are young, stimulating the brain’s marijuana receptors interfere with making memories. However, later in life, the brain gradually displays increasing evidence of inflammation and a dramatic decline in the production of new neurons, called neurogenesis, that are important for making new memories.”
Another factor that determines whether or not marijuana helps or hurts your memory is dosage. Apparently, it takes very little to improve memory in older brains. A colleague of Dr. Wenk’s coined the phrase “a puff is enough” since that is all that’s needed to produce noticeable memory improvement in seniors.
How To Increase Anandamide
The presence of anandamide obviously has a lot of general health and mental health benefits. Here are some ways to increase your levels naturally.
Chocolate is one of the most beloved foods on the planet. It’s rare to meet anyone who doesn’t enjoy chocolate. Chocolate is loved for its taste, its creamy texture, and for how it temporarily makes you feel happy. There are over 300 known chemical compounds in chocolate and scientists have been busy trying to figure out the biochemical basis of chocolate’s appeal.
It’s known for sure that chocolate contains mood-boosting caffeine and phenylethylamine, a substance called the “love molecule” that simulates the feeling of being in love. It also contains theobromine, a substance related to caffeine, that acts as a relaxant rather than a stimulant. It’s thought that theobromine causes the brain to produce more anandamide.
Chocolate is thought to contain both anandamide and compounds (N-acylethanolamines) that slow its breakdown. This gives you a net gain of anandamide which leaves you feeling temporarily happier after eating chocolate.
However, it’s also speculated that anandamide may explain why chocolate is the number one food craving. It used to be believed that women especially craved chocolate for its relatively high magnesium content, but there may be another more powerful driver. According to research done at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California, “Chocolate contains pharmacologically active substances that have the same effect on the brain as marijuana, and these chemicals may be responsible for certain drug-induced psychoses associated with chocolate craving.”
To get the most anandamide from chocolate, eat dark rather than milk chocolate. Or, better yet, eat cacao nibs which are the raw material used to create chocolate. Cacao nibs are significantly less processed than even the best chocolate, contain no sugar, and are a more concentrated source of chocolate’s beneficial compounds.
Until recently, chocolate was believed to be the only food that contained anandamide. That was until a team of Italian scientists found that black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) also contained it. Interestingly, this fungus produces anandamide but has no internal receptors for it that would supposedly trigger some biological effect. This has led researchers to believe that truffles developed anandamide as a mechanism to attract animals to eat it and encourage propagation by releasing the fungus spores.
Truffles are in great demand by top chefs around the world, but are difficult to cultivate so most are found in the wild by truffle hunters accompanied by truffle-seeking dogs. The traditional use of truffle-hunting pigs has been banned since they not only eat the truffles but trample and damage the beds where they grow. The presence of bliss-producing anandamide explains why truffle-hunting animals seek out the fungus with such frenetic enthusiasm!
Unless you are independently wealthy or have your own secret truffle-growing stash, you might want to stick with chocolate or other foods known to contain anandamide like celery, parsley, and tea. Truffles are so expensive they could give you sticker shock. Black truffles currently run $95 per ounce but are a bargain compared to white truffles, which cost almost twice as much!
What is it you love to do so much that it makes time fade away? This state of heightened focus, super concentration, and peak performance is called “the zone” or being in a state of “flow.” Flow has been defined as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” During the flow state, the brain releases large amounts of feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and anandamide.
If you are a runner, you may have experienced runner’s high. While usually attributed to endorphins, this theory is starting to fall out of favor. One reason is that endorphin molecules are too large to pass across the blood-brain barrier and get into the brain. Research done at the University of Arizona concluded that endocannabinoids, including anandamide, are more likely the cause for runner’s high.
Smoking marijuana might seem the logical choice for experiencing more bliss, since THC obviously binds to the same receptors as anandamide. But is smoking pot to relieve anxiety, increase happiness, or improve memory loss the right move for everyone? Probably not.
When anandamide binds to the cannabinoid receptor, it has a calming, anti-anxiety effect in most people, but about 20 percent of the population responds differently. There’s a naturally occurring enzyme called FAAH that deactivates anandamide. Some people have a genetic tendency to have less FAAH, which means their brains naturally have more anandamide. These people tend to be less anxious in general and, interestingly, less inclined to like marijuana. According to Dr. Richard A. Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, those with the variant FAAH gene experience a decrease in happiness when they smoke marijuana. His take is that when you naturally have more anandamide, you have less use for marijuana.
Dr. Friedman, an expert in the neurobiology and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, has also found that marijuana can be counterproductive for those with anxiety. “Psychotropic medications, therapy and relaxation techniques don’t help everyone, so what’s wrong with using marijuana to treat anxiety? The problem is that cannabis swamps and overpowers the brain’s cannabinoid system, and there is evidence that chronic use may not just relieve anxiety but interfere with learning and memory,” he states in a New York Times article.
Anandamide is a relatively recent discovery and there is still much to learn about how it affects the brain and mood in both healthy people and those with mental or brain disorders. But there is certainly no downside to exercising, spending time in “the zone,” and eating a little chocolate.