All You Need to Know About CBD and Gut Health
We are never alone. Not even in our bodies. There are trillions of microorganisms - bacteria, parasites, viruses, fungi, and other life forms - living in our bodies, collectively known as the microbiome. Think of a busy city on a Monday morning. Cars moving at a snail pace, people rushing along the sidewalks trying to make it to work on time, markets swarming with shoppers. Now picture all of that at a microscopic level - that’s your microbiome, coexisting peacefully in the intestines and throughout the body.
Microbiologists estimate that between 50-90% of the mass of our bodies is composed of the microbiota or “bugs”. As eerie as that might sound, these microorganisms interact with our cells on an intimate and ubiquitous level, promoting smooth daily operations of our body - which is why the microbiome is also termed a virtual organ. We live in a sort of symbiotic relationship with these “bugs”. Our bodies provide them sustenance and a place to live and in turn, they help us break down food and make nutrients more available to the body.
Impact of Microbes on Health
A person is first exposed to microbes as an infant in the delivery canal. Once out of the womb, the type of microbiome that forms in each of us varies greatly and depends on a range of factors, including genetics and environment. As you grow, your diet, environment, and lifestyle habits help determine the type of microbiome you cultivate which goes on to determine your gut health. Changes to any of these can set off a domino effect - starting with a change in the makeup of your microbiome which goes on to affect your cellular functions causing an impact on your daily physiological processes and finally your overall health.
Just as most of the body’s microbiota resides in the gut, so does most of the immune system. Our immune system is made up of a group of cells (called T-cells), proteins, and special organs. The gut microbiome acts as a coach for the T-cells to train them in distinguishing foreign entities from the body’s own tissues. When a pathogen enters the body and launches a cell attack that is inaccessible to the antibodies, the T-cells kick into gear as a backup system to destroy the infected cells.
When all is functioning well in the body, the gut sends signals for the growth of healthy immune cells. In return, the immune system helps in populating the gut with health-promoting microbiota. The more of these good guys you have on your side, the greater your immunity.
The gut also has a part to play in regulating appetite. Feelings of hunger are directly influenced by the diversity of our microbiota - a decline in its size is associated with hunger pangs. When we eat, the E. coli bacteria in the gut, which helps in digesting food, begins to multiply. After about 20 minutes of eating, this growth is leveled off and the E. coli switches to pumping a protein that suppresses appetite by inducing the feeling of being full. So, an unhealthy balance in your gut flora could affect the sensation of hunger, thus resulting in obesity or weight loss.
That being said, when faced with a bag of potato chips, you may not be completely at the mercy of your microbes.
The Gut as a Second Brain
Interestingly, research has found that the bacteria in your gut microbiome can not only influence your health but your mood, memory, concentration, mental health, digestion, and more. This connection is a result of the biochemical signaling between the gut and the brain. Turns out, when your brain sends messages all over your body, your gut talks back.
An example of the gut-brain partnership is an upset stomach when we are undergoing stressful events. When the brain senses trouble, it sends warning signals to the gut which tips its microbial balance, triggering a cascade of molecular reactions that result in digestive flare-ups. It works both ways. Just as stress causes gut problems, chronic gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, etc. are accompanied by anxiety and depression, thus exhibiting a strong connection between the gut microbiome and mental health.
It is no wonder that the gut is known as the “second brain”. It is the only organ that has a network of 100 million neurons in the gut wall. The scientific term for this “second brain” is Enteric Nervous System (ENS). This neuron network is so sophisticated that it doesn’t stop functioning even when the primary nerve connecting the gut with the brain is cut off - which is why it was named “pope of the torso” by comedian, Stephen Colbert.
How the Endocannabinoid System Interacts With the Gut
We’ve already established that the gut and the brain speak the same language. And now researchers have found that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) might have a role to play in mediating this communication. The endocannabinoid system is a network of receptors, enzymes, and endocannabinoid molecules that interact with the body’s Central Nervous System (brain and spinal cord) and the Enteric Nervous System (the gut) to help regulate pain, memory, mood, appetite, and more.
The ECS is an on-demand system. Similar to hormones and neurotransmitters, endocannabinoids aren’t stored in the body. They are only synthesized at the earliest signs of imbalance. Anandamide (AEA) is an endogenous intestinal cannabinoid that is synthesized for modulating appetite and energy balance. It works by engaging with the Enteric Nervous System through type 2 cannabinoid receptors, CB2.
Researchers have found that AEA plays a crucial role in maintaining balance in the intestinal immune system. In a study conducted on mice, oral administration of AEA caused specific changes in their intestinal cells. It was found that these mice exhibited a significant increase in CXC3CR1 macrophage cells and TR1 cells in the gut. Both these cells are responsible for regulating and suppressing immune response which helps prevent gut inflammation.
There’s more to the ECS than meets the eye. In addition to the endocannabinoid system, there is an ensemble of endocannabinoid-like mediators, their receptors, and metabolic enzymes that constitute the expanded endocannabinoid system which is also known as the Endocannabinoidome (eCBome). Turns out, the eCBome and the gut microbiome work together to influence energy metabolism. The eCBome in the brain communicates with the eCBome in the gut while performing their roles in nutrient processing.
Sometimes obesity from a high-fat diet or chronic antibiotic treatment or other factors tip the gut microbial composition off balance. This imbalance is also known as dysbiosis. Dysbiosis has been found to cause changes in the eCBome signaling in the gut which contribute to ill health. Treating it with the administration of pre and probiotics has been found to help reverse this condition. Research is now suggesting that external cannabinoids like CBD can also help in maintaining gut microbiome balance.
How Does CBD Impact Gut Health
At this point, we know that the ECS is a two-way communication channel between the brain and the gut. So nourishing the gut and assisting the ECS in its functions is a gateway to good health. Several researches using phytocannabinoids from hemp or cannabis have shown promise in maintaining gut health.
It has been found that in addition to the ECS, enteric glial cells (EGC) in the gut wall also play a part in maintaining gut homeostasis. While getting in on the action is a great day job for the EGC, these cells sometimes get activated in response to injury and inflammation and begin to proliferate. This manifests as an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and is marked by the over-secretion of S100B protein. In such cases, CBD has shown immense capability in controlling both the EGC-activation-induced inflammation and the intestinal inflammation that caused the EGC activation in the first place.
Two common inflammatory bowel diseases are ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s diseases. The root cause of these is an imbalance in the gut flora ecosystem. No surprise there. Interestingly, treatments comprising a combination of CBD and fish oil have shown strong intestinal anti-inflammatory effect in ulcerative colitis and other disorders caused by IBD. It doesn’t end there. Extending beyond its anti-inflammatory effects on the intestine, CBD works its way along the gut-brain axis to calm the gut-induced anxiety that the brain develops, thus restoring balance in the body.
Another area that CBD has been found to be of help is gut motility. Gut motility is the stretching and contraction of the muscles in the gastrointestinal tract for the movement of food and absorption of nutrients. Abnormal functioning of these muscles results in symptoms like bloating, cramping, constipation, diarrhea, etc. With the ECS influencing gut motility, supporting it with CBD can help keep these movements normal and gut bacteria in balance.
CBD and gut bacteria have a more intricate relationship than we realize. CBD oil has been found to help cure leaky gut wherein damage in the gut lining causes bacteria and toxins to pass into the bloodstream. In the presence of a leaky gut, lipopolysaccharides, which are components of a bacterial cell wall, have a free pass into the gut causing an imbalance in the microbiota. This triggers the endocannabinoid system, leading to further permeability of the gut wall. CBD has been found to counteract this effect to prevent leaky gut and maintain the functioning of the ECS at an optimal level.
From mood to metabolism, the gut flora is making it all happen as we speak. So maintaining the gut microbiome balance is the real deal to keep things running smoothly. A lot of this balance is linked to the endocannabinoid system which acts as a bridge between the gut and the body, relaying information to and fro. Now if you love your gut, you’ve got to give it the TLC it deserves. Along with diet, exercise, and healthy lifestyle choices, CBD has a role to play in keeping it in shape and in assisting the ECS to maintain gut homeostasis. In fact, the use of CBD has shown to have trickle-down effects which reduced the need for prescription drugs for patients with gut-related disorders. This only goes on to show that the right choices can make all the difference - in the gut, body, and soul.