Article written by
Dipak HemrajHead of Research and Education
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
Unlike cannabinoids like THC or CBD that come from outside the body, our bodies naturally produce molecules called endocannabinoids. Anandamide (AEA) is an endocannabinoid that helps regulate bodily functions like movement, memory, appetite, and pain perception.
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What Is Anandamide?
The word “anandamide” originates from “ananda,” a Sanskrit term that translates roughly to “bliss” or “joy,” giving a nod to the molecule’s ability to enhance one’s mood.
Anandamide’s full name is N-arachidonoylethanolamine (AEA), a naturally produced (endogenous) cannabinoid that the body synthesizes to help regulate many bodily functions. Our bodies create AEA on demand, triggering nervous responses through activating the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS).
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How It Works
Found in nearly all tissues in a wide range of animals, anandamide is an essential neurotransmitter your body needs to operate normally. When your body is out of balance, it triggers the release of endogenous cannabinoids like anandamide.
AEA elicits a reaction in your body by interacting with cannabinoid receptors called CB1 and CB2 receptors, the two most significant receptors in your endocannabinoid system.
These two receptors are found throughout the human body and are involved in most bodily functions. CB1 receptors are primarily in the central nervous system (CNS), lungs, liver, and kidneys, and CB2 receptors are concentrated mainly in peripheral tissues like the gastrointestinal tract, kidney, pancreas, and tissues involved in an immune reaction and blood production.
By interacting with these receptors, anandamide helps bring the body back into homeostasis.
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Degradation of Anandamide
Once anandamide has activated its intended receptors, it needs to be cleaned up, so it doesn’t continually trigger a response. Fatty acid amide hydrolase, referred to as FAAH, is the primary degrader of anandamide.
FAAH degrades anandamide into ethanolamine, a neurotransmitter precursor, and arachidonic acid, a fatty acid important in exercise. Any interruption to this degradation of anandamide can result in increased anandamide concentrations.
Potential Health Benefits
Anandamide has been established as a vital endocannabinoid for many different bodily functions, so what are the potential health benefits of anandamide?
Enhancing Brain Capacity and Memory
Little evidence exists specifically for anandamide aiding memory and brain capacity, but endocannabinoids, of which anandamide is one, have been found to protect against stress-related mental illness.
Anandamide-specific studies have yet to be performed, but it’s not a big leap to say a diet supplemented with anandamide may help support healthy brain function.
Regulation of how our nervous system works isn’t out of the scope of anandamide, but a 2002 study found that AEA inhibited the differentiation of some types of nerve cells. This confirmation that AEA helps regulate the nervous system isn’t a surprise, but it remains to be seen how that information might help inform health choices.
While AEA hasn’t been shown to boost your cognitive function, it can’t hurt to ensure your AEA levels aren’t dropping too low.
Discouraging Drug Addiction
It has been hypothesized that anandamide could be the basis for a therapy to reduce drug addiction. A recent study suggested that AEA modulates the brain reward circuitry, which could be targeted for developing anti-addiction therapies.
Regulation of Appetite
Appetite is closely tied to brain reward circuitry, activating a pleasure response when eating. Anandamide may be able to help control and regulate that brain reward circuitry, though further research is required.
Cannabinoids, like anandamide, are believed to be involved in cell proliferation, and cancers are simply uncontrolled cellular proliferation. It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that anandamide could have beneficial, anti-cancer properties when present in the right places in the body, though more research is needed.
Nausea and vomiting are serious conditions that often require medical interventions. Anandamide is a cannabinoid that activates CB1 and CB2 receptors, and there is strong evidence of cannabinoids that activate CB1 and CB2 being used as anti-emetics.
Pain Relief Properties
Anandamide has been indicated in mouse models as potentially reducing pain perception. Researchers found that mice with a genetic inability to produce fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), the compound responsible for degrading AEA, had 15 times the amount of AEA in their bodies as FAAH-capable mice.
These AEA-saturated mice exhibited a reduced reaction to pain, which was reversed when the mice were dosed with the CB1-antagonist SR141716A. This supports the theory that anandamide’s action is CB1-mediated.
Additionally, a 2011 study found that the administration of URB597, a selective FAAH inhibitor, caused reduced pain sensations in inflamed sites.
Conditions like anxiety and low motivation could possibly be treated with anandamide-based therapy. The endocannabinoid system is highly involved in mood regulation, and it would be no surprise that it can be manipulated to our benefit.
Researchers found that the administration of a FAAH-inhibiting compound significantly affected mouse behaviors around anxiety and motivation.
Fight Off Depression
In a 2007 study, researchers found that they could cause antidepressant-like effects in rodents treated with URB597, a selective inhibitor of FAAH. AEA levels were elevated by preventing FAAH from doing its normal job of degrading anandamide. Mice and rat brains treated this way showed symptoms and behaved similarly to rodents treated with imipramine, a common antidepressant.
If high levels of anandamide elicit a similar response to an antidepressant, AEA could promote a positive mental state.
Fights Off Inflammation and Edema
Anandamide was proven to have CB1- and CB2-mediated anti-inflammatory effects in a study on periodontitis (gum disease). Researchers found that serum levels of inflammatory markers, like interleukin-1β, prostaglandin, and tumor necrosis factor (TNF), dropped in response to a local injection of anandamide.
They also noted that the anti-inflammatory effects were negated when AEA was injected along with CB1- and CB2-antagonists. No inflammation reduction was observed by preventing AEA from acting on CB1 and CB2 receptors.
Anandamide has even been found to be involved in fertility. A study on men diagnosed with asthenozoospermia – low sperm motility – found that AEA levels were less than half for men with healthy sperm.
Solves Hypertension and Kidney Dysfunction
We’re a long way off developing an anandamide-based blood pressure medication, but multiple studies have suggested there may be something there.
The increased presence of AEA in these tissues implies that it has an important role in renal regulation. However, the relationship needs to be researched further before any conclusions can be made.
How to Naturally Boost Anandamide
Given the many benefits of having anandamide in your body, how can you boost your anandamide levels?
A 2012 study found that cannabidiol (CBD) can enhance anandamide signaling, and CBD inhibits the degradation of AEA, effectively boosting local AEA levels. The researchers in this study proposed future therapies for schizophrenia based on the AEA-boosting action of CBD.
Everyone knows exercise is a beneficial activity for general health, but it has been found that exercising can actually boost your naturally-occurring endocannabinoids.
You may have heard of “runner’s high.” A 2015 study found that endocannabinoid levels were significantly increased in mice after they ran on a wheel, suggesting AEA plays a role in the euphoria one feels after a run.
Eat More Fruits, Vegetables, and Black Truffles
As established above, FAAH is the primary compound that degrades anandamide, meaning that inhibition of FAAH will prevent the degradation of anandamide and therefore boost its levels.
Genistein and daidzein inhibit anandamide hydrolysis by FAAH, and they both occur naturally in plants. Soy products are generally relatively high in genistein and daidzein, as are other legumes like beans.
The winter black truffle has also been found to produce anandamide as part of its natural maturation process.
Acupuncture is an ancient medicine that has been used for hundreds of years. Known for its ability to help treat chronic and acute pain conditions, this therapy has also been found to increase anandamide levels in inflamed skin.
One study found increased levels of anandamide in inflamed skin following acupuncture versus a control group. The researchers noted that pre-treatment with a CB2 antagonist, effectively blocking CB2 activation by AEA, reduced the pain relief effect of AEA.
Eat Some Dark Chocolate
Those with a sweet tooth will be happy to learn that dark chocolate has been suggested to contain anandamide-boosting fats.
Three separate substances were detected in dark chocolate that could mimic the activity of cannabinoids, either by directly triggering cannabinoid receptors or increasing anandamide levels.
The Bottom Line
Anandamide is an essential fatty acid neurotransmitter your body uses to regulate many different bodily functions.
Through activation of the CB1 and CB2 receptors of your body’s endocannabinoid system, anandamide helps keep biological processes balanced and running as they should. We may be able to consume anandamide-rich diets to boost the potential health benefits of this important molecule.
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