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The Bliss Molecule: Anandamide

Yoga class
The benefits and functions of anandamide encompass appetite stimulation and emotional and mental improvements, including reduced anxiety and depression. (Shutterstock)

In the late 20th century, researchers around the globe began investigating the body’s network of cellular receptors that bind or interact with naturally occurring chemicals called endocannabinoids. In the process, these researchers learned something interesting: the human body produces its own set of wellness molecules. These molecules have proven to provide health-giving therapeutic value for patients who suffer a wide variety of diseases and conditions.

>>Read more about anandamide and anxiety

Maintaining homeostasis

Two major endocannabinoids have been identified to date: Anandamide (referred to as AEA) and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (more commonly known as 2-AG). 

Both molecules play an important role in modulating the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and maintaining overall health. The concept of the optimal health of the ECS is expressed by researchers and scientists as homeostasis. This is the theoretical state of an optimally tuned ECS — including improvements in the many bodily systems that it manages. When your ECS is in homeostasis the body is assumed to be balanced and, thus, operating in a state of “maximum health.” 

Man and woman running in park
Researchers believe anandamide is the molecule that causes the euphoria known as ‘runner’s high.’ (nd3000/123rf)

Anandamide: Discovery & investigation

In 1992, a research team in Jerusalem isolated and identified anandamide. After discovering the ability of the molecule to improve the emotional state of patients, the team — American pharmacologist William Devane, Czech chemist Lumir Hanuš, and pioneering Israeli researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam — chose the name anandamide, which is derived from ancient Sanskrit and means “joy” and “bliss.”

>>Read an interview with the scientist who discovered anandamide

In 1995, Mechoulam’s team at Hebrew University discovered a second endocannabinoid that they named 2-Arachidonoylglycerol, more commonly known as 2-AG. Together, anandamide and 2-AG have prompted researchers to further investigate the dynamics of the endocannabinoid system and the critical role that it appears to play in the regulation of a variety of important bodily systems, including immune function, mood, appetite, sleep, energy level, and metabolism, cognition, skin quality, vision, motor skills, and even libido.  

Medicinal effects of anandamide

Hundreds of research studies have shown that anandamide delivers a wide range of benefits. These encompass appetite stimulation and emotional and mental improvements, including reduced anxiety and depression. This makes anandamide of special value in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), pain relief, and the reduction of systemic inflammation — of benefit to diseases such as arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.  

Research has found that anandamide is involved in the regulation of:

How to boost anandamide levels

Given the health benefits of anandamide, including significant potential mental and physical improvements, the issue of either producing more anandamide internally or supplementing with outside sources of this special molecule is of obvious merit. 

Plant-based molecules that enhance or mimic anandamide are produced by a variety of sources, including cacao (used to make chocolate), black truffles, and other plants. This means that people supplementing their ECS with these natural plants might gain significant health benefits and emotional support. It may also help explain the common human craving for chocolate and cacao — perhaps these people are suffering from a deficiency in their ECS, specifically in their internal production of anandamide and 2-AG.  

“Three substances in chocolate and cocoa powder may mimic cannabinoids by activating receptors or increasing anandamide levels,” reported one study.

eating chocolate
Eating chocolate can increase anandamide levels. (Martin Novak/123rf)

Not only does high-quality chocolate derived from cacao boost the human body’s production of anandamide, it also delivers theobromine, a molecular cousin to caffeine that produces the polar opposite effect of relaxation. The study theorizes that theobromine may cause the body (specifically, the brain, where the greatest density of CB1 receptors is found) to produce greater volumes of anandamide.

Exercise & anandamide

One of the most effective and beneficial ways to produce more anandamide is exercise. Anandamide is synthesized internally in an effort to deal with physiological or mental stress or disharmony. Although the benefits of anandamide are multifaceted, one of its greatest values is as an analgesic. Thus, this endocannabinoid is produced in the most plentiful quantities during endurance exercise involving significant effort or time periods. 

“An exercise-induced altered state of consciousness has long been appreciated by endurance athletes,” the authors of one study wrote. The research defined runner’s high, which typically is mired in ambiguity and a lack of scientific description, relatively precisely: “The runner’s high has been described subjectively as pure happiness, elation, a feeling of unity with one’s self and/or nature, endless peacefulness, inner harmony, boundless energy, and a reduction in pain sensation.” 

The study revealed that the analgesic quality of endocannabinoids such as anandamide is dictated by the type of pain being experienced. “There are particular types of pain against which cannabinoids are particularly effective,” reported the study’s authors.

Another study that people who exercised for a minimum of an hour produced significantly higher levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide. 

The study also concluded that anandamide is the molecule that causes the euphoria called runner’s high, not the hormone endorphin. This is notable because it was the first time the idea that a runners high is produced by high levels of endorphin was challenged.


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