10 Foods & Habits That Support Your Body's Endocannabinoid System

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As a functional medicine practitioner, I've seen high-quality hemp and CBD products work wonders on many of my patients with a variety of health issues, including chronic inflammation and anxiety. But why exactly can these products be so effective? Turns out, the compounds they contain work their magic by affecting something we all have: the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

Here, I dive into why exactly the ECS is so important and various ways to support its functioning via simple diet and lifestyle changes—which, in turn, will help you reap even more benefits from your hemp or CBD product. 

First, what exactly is the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and why should you care?

The endocannabinoid system is known as a "master regulatory system" and works to maintain homeostasis in the body, which is a science-y way of saying it works to keep your body balanced. But to understand how it works, you have to understand the compounds that influence it. 

Endocannabinoids are types of molecules produced by your body. These are different from cannabinoid molecules that have to be ingested through cannabinoid-containing substances such as hemp oil, CBD oil, or marijuana. There are two main endocannabinoids that have been discovered—anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG).

Throughout your body, the ECS has receptors for each of these endocannabinoids to bind to. When an endocannabinoid binds to a receptor, it signals your ECS and helps keep various body functions running optimally. The two main types of endocannabinoid receptors include CB1 receptors, located mainly in your central nervous system, and CB2 receptors, located mainly in your peripheral nervous system (specifically in your immune cells). Depending on which receptor an endocannabinoid binds to, it can produce different results. For example, if an endocannabinoid binds to CB2 receptors in your immune cells, it can help lower inflammation and ease symptoms of autoimmune conditions.

So why would you want to support your ECS in other ways when you can just pop some CBD gummies or take some hemp extract oil? The more you support your ECS, the more effective your hemp and CBD products will actually be. But more than that, taking steps to support this system will go a long way in enhancing your overall health.

In fact, more and more research is showing the connection between a variety of health problems and low endocannabinoid levels, similar to how a deficiency in neurotransmitters can be linked to other health problems like depression. In research this is referred to as "clinical endocannabinoid deficiency," and it can play a role in autism, migraines, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome. And these are just the beginning as the research surrounding the ECS continues to grow. 

How to support your body's endocannabinoid system naturally.

The great thing about endocannabinoids is that, since your body naturally produces them, you can do things to naturally trigger or enhance their production. Here are 10 simple ways to improve the functioning of your endocannabinoid system:

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1. Move your body.

Moving your body in some way is beneficial for so many areas of your health, including the endocannabinoid system. Exercise can both increase levels of your natural CB1 activator, anandamide, as well as your CB1 receptor sensitivity.

2. Soak up the sun.

Spending a summer day outdoors can do wonders for your mood—and many experts recommend spending up to 20 minutes in the sun daily without sunscreen. This not only helps you soak up vitamin D, it also enhances your ECS. That's because UVA rays from the sun promote nitric oxide activity in the body, and, in turn, nitric oxide boosts abundance and expression of CB1 receptors.

3. Eat more fat.

The more we learn about certain fats, the more we move far, far away from the belief that "fat is bad." And it turns out, endocannabinoids are produced from the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid. But balance is key, as too much arachidonic acid can also inhibit cannabinoid receptors and increase inflammation. So, what should you eat? Making sure you have a healthy ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is essential to reap the endocannabinoid benefits. You can find a healthy ratio of these omega fatty acids in eggs, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, salmon, and wild-caught sardines (basically, my pescatarian-friendly Ketotarian staples).

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4. Embrace the cold.

Living in Pittsburgh, I'm no stranger to cold weather—and I've really come to appreciate it now that I know the perks, including the fact that cold exposure has been shown to stimulate the endocannabinoid system. So instead of hiding away come winter, make an effort to go on more walks or get outside in some way. And if you are one of the lucky people who live in warm-weather climates year-round, try a blast of cold water in the shower.

5. Take steps to reduce stress.

Stress has been implicated in a variety of health conditions. In fact, I often see patients who note that their symptoms first began after a stressful life event. When you are emotionally stressed, your stress hormone cortisol is elevated. When this happens, it can reduce hippocampal CB1 receptors in the brain, which leads to lower cannabinoid function. And when you are chronically stressed, these CB1 receptors are chronically inhibited. So, take any steps you can to reduce your overall stress load, from exercise to meditation to getting plenty of sleep.

6. Get enough electrolytes.

Electrolytes such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium are important for keeping you hydrated, regulating your body's pH levels, and basically just keeping your body functioning at 100%. Studies have shown that adequate amounts of calcium and potassium boost CB1 transport and activity.

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7. Increase vitamin A intake.

This fat-soluble vitamin helps keep your immune system strong and increases CB1 expression. You can find vitamin A most abundantly in wild-caught fish, wild-caught shellfish, cod liver oil, liver, grass-fed butter, and ghee. While you can also obtain vitamin A through sweet potatoes and carrots, which contain precursors to vitamin A called carotenes (including beta-carotene), the conversion rate to the usable form of vitamin A (retinol) is fairly low, at about 3%.

8. Indulge in dark chocolate.

Not like you need encouragement to eat more chocolate, but now you have it: Dark chocolate happens to contain the endocannabinoid, anandamide, as well as compounds that slow the breakdown of this endocannabinoid, which helps stimulate your endocannabinoid system even further.

9. Drink more tea.

No list of mine would be complete with tea, and here's yet another benefit to add to its resume. Tea contains antioxidant compounds known as catechins that work to enhance the endocannabinoid system by binding to cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system. Green tea is abundant in the catechin antioxidant Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is particularly potent.

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10. Avoid endocannabinoid blockers.

While some things can enhance the endocannabinoid system, some things can also inhibit it. Pesticides and chemicals like phthalates in plastic can block the activity of the endocannabinoid system, which is important to note since these are two things that are extremely common in our everyday lives. Aim to reduce your exposure by opting for organic produce and using eco-friendly storage options made from glass and stainless steel.

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional-medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam at...
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