The Endocannabinoid System and Eating Disorders

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The Science of CBD and Cannabinoids

The importance of the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the human body can’t be overstated. Present in nearly all living animals, the system consists of the cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2, the endocannabinoid ligands anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), and their metabolic enzymes.

Found throughout the brain, connective tissues, glands, immune cells, and organs, together they form a system of locks (cannabinoid receptors) and keys (endocannabinoids), which play a major role in day-to-day bodily functions and are responsible for homeostasis, or the maintenance of a stable internal environment, in the body. ECS is recognized as probably the most important modulatory system in the human body.


However, the journey to the discovery of the ECS was only made possible by pioneering research into the cannabis plant. According Professor Raphael Mechoulam, known as “the father of Cannabis research,” has said:

“The work on the plant has now led to the identification of a major physiological system, (the endocannabinoid system), which seems to be involved in many human diseases. The plant THC mimics compounds found in the brain, named endocannabinoids (anandamide and 2-AG), which we discovered in 1992 and 1995.  These two brain cannabinoids are of immense importance in the working of our body.”

Researchers have discovered that modulating the activity of the ECS holds therapeutic promise for treating a wide range of diseases and pathological conditions and there are a growing number of studies exploring its regulatory functions in health and disease.

These studies have not only offered new insights into the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic actions of plant-derived phytocannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), but are also exploring novel molecular targets for pharmacotherapy as well.


Brain Cannabinoids Help Modulate Mood

Of course, because of its main role as a modulator of day-to-day physiological functions, one of the main areas of research in recent years has been the ECS’s participation in both the homeostatic and hedonic (pleasure) aspects of eating.

ECS has been well-documented to be involved in controlling and regulating eating behavior.  To date, there have been numerous studies that have found the ECS to be a valuable help for obesity and other metabolic disorders. But what about its potential role in treating eating disorders?

Eating disorders are mental disorders that are serious and often fatal illnesses that cause severe and abnormal eating habits. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, obsessions with food, body weight, and shape may also signal an eating disorder.


Common eating disorders include:

Anorexia nervosa (where people eat very little food and have a low body weight)

Bulimia nervosa (where people eat a lot of food and then try to purge themselves of the food)

Binge-eating disorder (where people eat a large amount of food in a short period of time).  Anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse are common among people with eating disorders.



Adequate nutrition, balanced exercise, and stopping purging behaviors are the foundations of treatment.  Treatment plans are tailored to individual needs and may include medical care and monitoring, nutritional counseling, psychotherapies, and medications.

However, one of the more promising avenues for research has been the endocannabinoid system, which has long been known to be an important regulator of day-to-day physiological functions, including the homeostatic and hedonic aspects of eating. To explore the role of the ECS in eating disorders, a team of Italian researchers reviewed the scientific literature and published their findings in  the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design.

The authors identified several reports that lead to the hypothesis that a dysregulation of neuronal pathways, which encode the rewarding value of food (i.e. limbic system), may drive individuals with eating disorders to poor eating behaviors.  Furthermore, they found that therapeutic strategies based on drugs that modulate endocannabinoid system signaling might be useful in the treatment of these disorders.

In fact, they found that pharmacotherapy may be especially useful in some patients at risk of excessive weight gain and obesity due to a binge-eating disorder. For example, studies have shown that chronic pharmacological blockade of CB1 receptors reduces binge eating behavior in female rats and may prove effective in significantly reducing body weight.  They suggested that given its ability to suppress caloric intake, CBD should be considered for the treatment of binge-eating disorders.

Another area of great interest is in utilizing pharmacotherapies for patients with anorexia who are chronically under voluntary food restriction that causes excessive weight loss.

Several studies in the past have demonstrated cannabis’ ability to stimulate the appetite and support weight gain for patients undergoing chemotherapy and for patients with HIV.  The authors also found encouraging results on the rationality of a cannabinoid pharmacotherapy, demonstrating the effectiveness of THC in rescuing animals from the great body weight loss associated with the development of anorexia, thus improving the survival rate.

(However, it’s important to note that because of the psychoactive properties of THC, high doses of the drug cannot be easily tolerated.  Thus, the inclusion of CBD which can counteract some of the intoxicating effects of THC may allow for higher doses and better beneficial effects.)

The researchers concluded that strenuous research on the identification of drugs acting on the endocannabinoid system but that also impinge on other associated neurotransmitter systems can lead to an important progress in the pharmacotherapy of eating disorders.

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Tags: Cannabidiol, CBD research, CBD uses, Eating Disorders, Medical Cannabis

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