Patients around the world use cannabis to ease pain, improve overall health, and enhance quality of life. There’s no doubt that the herb is beneficial, but there’s another consumable that deserves attention: fat. The human body makes its own version of psychoactive THC from fatty acids. Research over the past five years suggests that dietary fat intake may have a huge impact on endocannabinoid health. Here’s why your low-fat diet is killing your endocannabinoid system.
What is the endocannabinoid system?
There’s a reason cannabis has so many medicinal benefits. Compounds in the herb tap into the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a large cellular network that regulates core functions in the body and helps maintain optimal balance.
The ECS is crucial for many processes, including metabolism, sleep, mood, pain, immune function, and movement. Cannabis can engage with this system because, when consumed, chemicals produced by the plant replace chemicals our bodies produce naturally.
Humans produce their own versions of THC, called endocannabinoids. Some researchers suggest that irregularities in the endocannabinoid system can have a whole host of effects, including pain, digestive issues, seizures, mental health concerns, and more.
While the compounds in cannabis make for entertaining and therapeutic endocannabinoid replacements, recent research has identified another key target for optimal ECS function and health: diet.
Humans make endocannabinoids from dietary inputs. As it turns out, certain foods seem to have a direct impact on the ECS. To give the endocannabinoid system a boost, recent findings suggest that it’s important to eat more healthy, high-quality fats.
Why a low-fat diet can kill the ECS
For decades, the most common nutritional knowledge available has demonized fats. Healthy fats are missing from the US Department of Agriculture’s food initiative, My Plate.
When picturing a healthy meal, an image of a green salad, a chicken breast, and low-fat dressing may come to mind.
Fat is significantly more caloric than other macronutrients, so it is easy to guess how the stuff got a bad rap in the health world. Not to mention, the Western diet is abundant in highly processed vegetable fats (think french fry oil) that are difficult for the body to digest and metabolize into energy.
However, while the natural sources of fat are essential for a healthy diet. Contrary to popular belief, some healthy fats include saturated fat, like those found in coconut oil. Others include omega-3 fatty acids, found in olive oil and fish, which are crucial for proper endocannabinoid balance.
Dietary fats are the only source of fatty acids required for the creation of endocannabinoids. Without an intake of dietary fat, the body may not have the fuel that it needs to properly synthesize endocannabinoids. Yet, not all fats will do the trick.
New research suggests that consuming too many unhealthy fats and not enough good fats can wreak havoc on the endocannabinoid system.
Processed fats vs. healthy fats
A typical low-fat diet “Western diet” is high in two food groups: processed fat and processed carbohydrate (grains and sugars). Processed fats include vegetable oils like soybean, canola, safflower, sunflower, and peanut.
These oils are a modern invention and new to our dietary landscape. On the contrary, coconut oil and olive oil can be extracted through a simple pressing technique.
Yet, many modern cooking oils rely on petroleum-derrived solvents and extremely high heat to extract the oils. This translates to products with an unnatural abundance of omega-6 fatty acids, which are inflammatory and fattening in high concentrations.
Consuming too many omega-6 fatty acids and not consuming enough healthy fats along with them may contribute to obesity. For those with the opposite problem, increased omega-6 fatty acids from natural sources like whole, raw seeds and nuts may increase endocannabinoid tone and promote weight gain.
Endocannabinoids, dietary fat, and weight
Recent studies show a correlation between obesity and increased levels of endocannabinoids in fat tissue. Basically, eating too many omega-6 fatty acids seems to trigger a hyperactive ECS.
Funny enough, supplementing with certain kinds of additional healthy fats may aid in correcting this imbalance. Medical researchers state that this hyperactivity can be mitigated by supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids.
In 2013, researchers tested the effects of krill oil supplementation on mildly obese men. Krill oil is a high-quality source of easily metabolized omega-3 fatty acids. Subjects supplemented with krill oil for six months.
After chronic treatment, both plasma triglycerides and levels of an endocannabinoid called anandamide decreased. High plasma triglycerides is a marker of obesity.
An additional 2014 human study shows that the connection between dietary fat and the ECS is quite complicated. 41 participants were separated into four groups. Two groups were categorized as lean and each received either a low-fat or a high-fat diet. The next two groups were categorized as obese, and they were given either a low-fat or high-fat diet.
In this particular study, there was no indication that a high-fat diet was the cause of increased endocannabinoids in fat tissue. But, the high peanut oil intake did cause cannabinoid receptors in the musculoskeletal system to decrease.
This led the study authors to conclude that dietary fat intake can change the ECS. These changes may be important to understanding metabolic disease in the future. Interestingly, the high-fat diets caused a less of an insulin spike than those on low-fat diets.
Healthy sources of fat:
- Grass-fed meats
- Pasture-raised eggs
- Raw nuts and seeds (nuts not cooked in processed vegetable oils)
- Coconut oil/ milk
- Olive oil
Medical ailments, endocannabinoids, & diet
Nutritional support for the endocannabinoid system is an emerging market in the cannabis/ECS research field. Like cannabis research, investigations and clinical trials regarding nutrition and dietary supplements are sorely lacking.
Nutrition is one of the most controversial fields of contemporary medicine. Unfortunately, patients and consumers everywhere suffer as a result.
Though firm information is lacking, there are some interesting theories about cannabinoids, diet, and disease stepping up to bat. For example, in 2008, neurologist and medical researcher Ethan Russo theorized that some diseases may be caused by a clinical endocannabinoid deficiency.
It’s common knowledge amongst the medical field that certain conditions are associated with low levels of particular necessary compounds. Parkinson’s disease, for example, is linked with a deficiency in the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Russo suggests that certain medical ailments may be caused by a lack of endocannabinoids as well.
In an interview with Project CBD, he explains,
So what would a deficiency of endocannabinoid function look like? […] If you don’t have enough endocannabinoids you have pain where there shouldn’t be pain. You would be sick, meaning nauseated. You would have a lowered seizure threshold. – Russo
Russo continues to theorize that fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraine may all be caused by endocannabinoid deficiency. In a paper published this year , Russo also suggests that this deficiency may also play a role in bipolar disorder. Omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies are thought to contribute to the mental health condition.
Cannabis, fat, & epilepsy
Epilepsy provides a good, theoretical example of the connection between endocannabinoids, diet, and illness. Cannabis has been making headlines for its remarkable ability to drastically reduce seizures in epileptic patients. Yet, extremely high-fat (ketogenic) diets have also produced incredible results in epilepsy.
A 2008 study recruited 145 children and teens with epilepsy. 73 were placed on a ketogenic diet and 72 acted as controls. Those on the ketogenic diet saw a statistically significant reduction in overall seizures.
Similarly, recent trials of Epidiolex, a cannabis-based anti-seizure pharmaceutical, found that cannabis components also significantly improved seizure threshold.
A ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet. The primary source of energy in a ketogenic diet is fat, and fat makes up 60 to 80% of calories consumed. Only around 10 to 20% of energy comes from carbohydrates. This is pretty much the exact opposite of is commonly viewed as “healthy”.
Additional rodent studies have found that ketogenic diets may be beneficial for reducing diabetic neuropathy. Many patients with painful neuropathy currently find relief with medical cannabis. So, both fat consumption and cannabis have something in common: they both moderate the endocannabinoid system.
As Russo states,
And there’s a large body of evidence now to show that diet can positively influence the endocannabinoid system and its balance.
Fat is your new friend
Fat is no longer the dietary demon it once was. In terms of the endocannabinoid system, fat intake is vital for the creation and regulation of the body’s natural cannabis. Yet, consuming the right kinds of fats in the right amounts is essential.
Too many processed vegetable oils may cause the ECS to go into hyperdrive. However, not consuming enough fats may contribute to endocannabinoid deficiency.
There are many instances when a low-fat diet is necessary. It is always important to consult with a medical professional before making an extreme diet change.
However, there’s no harm in opting for grilled fish instead of a hamburger and fries or swapping out vegetable oil for some extra virgin coconut the next time you heat up the stove. Your endocannabinoid system will thank you.