Did you see the medicinal cannabis science report in The New York Times on February 16?
In summary, the report says the great sense of euphoria and calm that many people report experiencing after prolonged exercise (“the runner’s high”) is not so much governed by the endorphins as “now an emerging field of neuroscience indicates that an altogether different neurochemical system within the body and brain, the endocannabinoid system, may be responsible for that feeling” of “pure happiness, elation, a feeling of unity with one’s self and/or nature, endless peacefulness,” and “inner harmony.”
I have always been fascinated by how exercise and positive mood states go together. Having a master’s degree in exercise physiology and cardiac rehabilitation, being a runner for 45 years, and as a rock climber with a background in Zen, I feel qualified to discuss how the endocannabinoid system can be activated by exercise and/or THC ingestion.
Graphic: Cannabis Culture
If you aren’t familiar with the endocannabinoid system, the body’s own internal source of cannabis-like chemicals, I suggest you read “Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System” from NORML.
To rehabilitate out-of-shape, sedentary individuals and motivate them to get their heart rate into the target zone and sweat, as a health practitioner, I would give them a new cognitive approach to understanding exercise — not for competition, but as a medicine that gets you “high” on exercise, that gives you that red-cheeked, smiling, glowing face. This is the very expression of the bliss of wellness.
Ongoing discoveries, which are starting to dominate research on the endocannabinoid system, are validating the ancient stories of healing mind and body with this non-toxic plant.
The four parts of the endocannabinoid system that have been discovered piecemeal in the past 19 years, but have only recently been gaining the attention of the pharmaceutical companies, who are now positioning themselves to profit by manufacturing drugs that activate the system but still keep cannabis illegal for the masses.
Graphic: Marijuana: Should It Be Legal?
Only as recently as 1992 did medical researchers discover this previously unknown, body-wide neurocellular receptor system that controls or regulates almost every function in the body, by apparently bringing the mind and body back to a state of homeostasis after being stressed by the environment. This system is the “wisdom of the body” that we all experience as the body “just knowing how to fix itself” after illness. This system is the very definition of wellness!
Researchers at that time hadn’t found an internally made neurotransmitter that fit these receptors, labeled CB1 and CB2 (CB stands for cannabinoid). The only molecule that fit and activated them perfectly was the THC molecule from cannabis, so they labeled these body-wide receptors, collectively, as the endocannabinoid system (endo- meaning “made in the body”).
The search was on to find a naturally made neurotransmitter that also fit these receptors, and in 1992, anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter, was discovered. The name is taken from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss, delight, or “the bliss within.”
Graphic: Addiction Inbox
The whole system is controlled by four players — two bliss receptors and two bliss molecules. CB1 bliss receptors are found primarily in the brain, controlling the euphoric effects of aerobic exercise and of cannabis ingestion. CB2 bliss receptors are found everywhere else in the body, but in highest concentration in the immune system. In addition, CB2 receptor activation also seems to play a large part in controlling inflammation and pain modulation.
Why I am using the term “bliss receptor”? Because when these receptors are activated, the individual experiences an internal state of bliss! When the toggle on a light switch is thrown, the switch doesn’t care what flipped it; the same light is always produced. The CB1 receptor is the same; exercise or THC ingestion yields the same result.
The first bliss molecule, THC, was isolated in 1964, but only with the discovery of the second bliss molecule, anandamide, in 1992 did the significance of THC’s discovery make sense.
Apparently there existed in nature a non-toxic phytochemical plant family which, when ingested, brings the body and mind back into equilibrium and homeostasis, as important as any other phytochemical, vitamin, or mineral we take in from our environment.
Many individuals may have a sub-optimal anandamide production capability, perhaps due to PTSD, child abuse, poverty, poor nutrition, or genetics. Think of THC as a non-toxic natural phytochemical like Resveratrol. THC ingestion by individuals may be a form of self-selection in which they are boosting the function of the endocannabinoid system through titration to optimally balance their internal state.
Why is anandamide called the “bliss molecule”? Because it describes exactly what happens when the system is activated. When anandamide or THC locks into the CB1 receptor, it produces the euphoria of the runner’s high.
So what exactly is this “high” feeling one gets after intense aerobics? The term “euphoria” means “a profound state of well being” or “an intense state of transcendent happiness combined with an overwhelming sense of contentment; the power of enduring easily.”
The opposite would be to live in despair, anxiety, depression, and give up. To reject this state of bliss because it is produced by an external agent on the grounds that it is not natural is a false paradigm I reject, and is quite hypocritical, especially living in our culture with nonstop drug advertising on TV to “fix” countless human conditions.
Remember: Due to illness, disability, age and pain, many individuals are not capable of getting their heart rates into the target range to activate the anandamide pathway. Neurons that fire together, wire together. With use, this pathway strengthens; with disuse, the system weakens, which may lead to the depression seen in many chronic illnesses.
Cannabis then becomes their lifeline to joy and happiness. As proof, when CB1 receptors are blocked by the anti-obesity drug and CB1 antagonist, Rimonabant, people overwhelmingly reported experiencing severe depression and suicidal thoughts, and this drug that was being marketed had to be pulled in February 2006.
So when these receptors are turned on, the opposite effect takes place: the will to live.
Ingestion of cannabis is the same model for optimal health that runners experience. Imagine that!
An internal and external molecule that produces bliss akin to a mystical experience, and the first body system named after cannabis… How can cannabis ever be labeled as unnatural?
The totality of human experience can be described as a search for happiness. Isn’t this the quest of life, why we toil and struggle? Aren’t we all seeking a state of bliss?
It’s even enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as “the pursuit of happiness.” Isn’t the individual the one who defines what happiness is for himself or herself?
“The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make other people happy.” ~ Robert Ingersoll