Now, if you’re good with words, you might have noticed that cannabinoid sounds a lot like cannabis. And you would be right. Only, cannabinoids come from inside your body. They are hormones made in your own liver and kidneys from omega-6 fatty acids.
Cannabis sativa has been around for 4000 years, but the Obesity Epidemic is fairly recent. Some smart scientists saw a connection and decided to study the munchies.
The discovery of these natural-munchie-makers started when curious scientists wanted to understand why marijuana caused users to eat compulsively. They found that our body made a hormone with a similar effect. The targets for this appetite-maker live not only in our brain but also in the fat around and inside our bellies.
When our body is working well, the pancreas makes insulin, which takes sugar and moves it from the blood into the cells. Cannabinoids mess with the ability of insulin to do this job. Someone with type 2 diabetes might have lots of insulin, but because of this cannabinoid system, can’t use it. Their muscles are prevented from accessing the carbohydrates they eat. With this misuse, the brain sends faulty signals. “EMERGENCY! Your brain doesn’t have enough sugar. EAT. EAT. EAT.”
This cannabinoid system is quite cleverly independent of the other systems that control our drive to seek rewards in foods. Scientists found too that these hormones aren’t happy if we’re just eating salads and whole grains. Cannabinoids plant the idea that we want fatty foods and foods rich in sugar. Doughnuts anyone? The biological basis for these types of food binges is that our cannabinoid receptors, a lot of which we are carrying around our midsection, cause uncontrollable urges that drive us toward cuisine that in effect adds to our waist circumference. This pushes us toward more binging. Are you getting the vicious cycle here?
Cannabinoids also stimulate the liver to make more fat, which elevates the triglyceride levels and the LDL (lousy blood fat) putting us more at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
In the years since we were cavemen, we humans have evolved to survive, to take advantage of our environment so we could populate the planet. You might ask then, why have our bodies developed in the maladaptive way?
Cannabinoids whether exogenous (coming from outside our body) or endogenous (produced inside our body) have a purpose. More than one, actually.
They calm us after periods of stress, which as doctors Roizen and Oz tell us in the book, You Staying Young, happened during times when our prehistoric ancestors couldn’t find enough food. Cannabinoids said, “Hey, relax, dude. No worries, we’ll just get really efficient at storing what fat you have.” Hence our tendency to hold onto flab.
In the early days of mankind, fat storage was adaptive. It allowed us to get through until our next Wooly Mammoth burger. While we waited and starved, the oddest things started to look appetizing to us. The disgusting-quotient didn’t exist. Anyone who has ever watched Bizarre Foods on the Food Channel has seen how we humans can adjust to eating just about anything. Thank you cannabinoids!
If just-about-anything was fruits and vegetables, this prehistoric response wouldn’t be so bad. But these mischievous cannabinoids attract us to…you guessed it, the easily palatable ones: fatty, salty and sugary. Why else would someone have come up with a delicacy like chocolate covered bacon?
How do we turn this around? Make progress? Lose that midsection fat that’s sending us all the wrong messages? It’s difficult but not impossible.
Doctors Roizen and Oz use the metaphor of weight loss as swimming against a current. They say, “You either have to swim harder or slow the current. Strenuous exercise trains your muscles to use energy and restrict calories, especially unhealthy amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. Changing how we eat, avoiding foods that help make cannabinoids is a way to swim against the current.” That’s the swimming harder part.
But how do we slow the current?
Pharmaceutical companies Merck and Sanofi are now testing drugs that mess with the cannabinoid system. It may be a few years before they are approved in the U.S.
Even though what our bodies developed a long time ago to help us survive is now extremely inappropriate for the lives we are living today, it’s important not to let the current carry us too far downstream. Keep exercising and making healthful food choices. But realize it’s hard, and that you’re not imagining it when you experience the natural munchies. What you are feeling is real, and scientists are working on a remedy.