Cannabis, Marijuana, Tetrahydrocannabinol, Cannabidiol, Cannabinoids, etc. all sound like words that will see you on the wrong end of a 10 stretch at Her Majesty’s pleasure. True for some, but did you know your body actually has something in common with all of these? And it all started with your mum!
Yep, mum’s the word here, and specifically it’s her breast milk we are talking about. No one wants to think back to those innocent days where you were unwittingly suckling on your mothers teat, but it’s all a natural part of how we started out - unless your mum didn’t fancy her baps going south before 40, and brought you up on formula. In which case, you guys missed out on some truly nutritious stuff!
Cannabinoids, well Endocannabinoids anyway, are present in human mothers milk and they play an integral part of the development of newborn babies. In fact, one particular endocannabinoid, 2-arachidonoylglycerol is actually said to be critical in keeping newborns alive.
But what the hell are endocannabinoids? And how can they possibly be related to compounds found in a plant that our government deemed illegal in the early 20th century? Surely they can’t be one and the same, otherwise lactating mums all around the world are essentially walking cannabis farms?
Here’s a quick and probably quite crude science lesson - Cannabinoids are a class of diverse chemical compounds. Regardless of origin or structure, any compound which acts on the cannabinoid receptors of the body or brain is classed as a cannabinoid. For the compounds found within mothers milk and produced by almost every organism in the animal kingdom, these are Endocannabinoids - endo refers to ‘endogenous’, which simply means it has an internal origin within the organism. The two main Endocannabinoids, which you’re excused for having never heard of, are anandamide (N-arachidonoylethanolamine) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. 10 bonus points goes to those of you who can successfully pronounce these first time around!
Phytocannabinoid refers to the class of compounds (cannabinoids) found within the plant Cannabis Sativa L. These compounds are characterised by 21 atoms and include Δ9-THCA, CBDA, CBGA and CBCA (acidic phytocannabinoids), which can then be transformed through heat and light into their active neutral forms. These include Δ9-THC, CBD, CBG and CBC.Finally (and not many people know this either), there are also synthetic cannabinoids. These are created in the labs of big Pharma and include Dronabinol (Δ9-THC synthetic), Nabilone (Δ9-THC synthetic), JHW-018 and JHW-073. These latter two postcode looking not-rights are better known to many individuals hanging around Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, as SPICE - yep nasty stuff!
Okay, so now we’ve familiarised ourselves with the ins and outs of cannabinoid science, let’s get back to talking about your mum.
Our new friends (names we can’t pronounce) anandamide (N-arachidonoylethanolamine) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol, who we are going to call ANA and 2-AG from now on, for simplicity sake, are truly amazing little molecules. They act as keys to CB1 and CB2 receptors (found in the central nervous system, various organs and tissues of the body), unlocking (activating) actions involved in a large variety of physiological processes. It’s interesting to note, if your mums breast milk didn’t contain 2-AG, then you would have been at risk of developing a disease known as “non-organic ability to thrive”, which is a condition where a baby can’t consume enough food to sustain itself - sound a bit far fetched? These are babies we are talking about; it’s not like they can just get up and take a walk down to the local Nandos if the milk’s not going down. You see, 2-AG ‘exerts remarkable effects in endocannabinoid-mediated retrograde signaling. Given these facts, it is proposed that 2-AG is the primary endogenous ligand for both CB1 and CB2 in the central nervous system’
To you, me and Dupree, this simply means 2-AG helps to signal our little brains (when we are babies) to suckle (oral motor control) and therefore take in the milk. Both the endocannabinoids have been shown to regulate food intake and energy balance.
Here’s a pretty cool fact: ANA, an endogenously produced arachidonate derivative (or endocannabinoid to us pretend geeks), was synthesised in the uterus whilst you were a mere embryo. ANA then acted on cannabinoid receptors expressed on the cell surface of the embryo (you), in order to regulate preimplantation embryo development - in other words, you the embryo developed due to (in part) the actions of a cannabinoid - Who’d have thought cannabis could be this connected to humankind? Wait, those hippies in the 1960s; the Tim Leary and Robert Anton Wilson types - they were onto something all along.
Bottom line - You were born with cannabinoid receptors specifically designed to process cannabinoids, and this is why phytocannabinoids such as CBD have such high affinity in the body; it’s why phytocannabinoids ‘work’ so well.
For the last several decades, research and studies on appetite stimulation by cannabinoids have endeavoured to improve treatments for various conditions. The exciting progress we are making in understanding how the endocannabinoid CB receptor systems influence appetite and body weight, will no doubt lead to great things. This is in part down to science having a better understanding of the role CB1 receptors play in the activation of milk suckling in newborns. So next time you see a mother breast feeding, instead of rolling your eyes in disapproval, maybe you’ll have a little more respect for the process. You could even go over and give her the science on how cannabinoids in her milk are keeping the little one alive - on second thoughts, just be content that you now have this knowledge and leave her to it - and don’t make eye contact, it’s creepy - unless you’re a mother yourself, in which case you can give a satisfying nod of approval.