It’s a hot topic in the news and among our law makers today — controversial cannabis oil and its therapeutic value. We know that cannabinoids, the compounds found in cannabis that allow for the plant’s many health benefits, can help to improve a number of serious diseases, from cardiovascular disease to schizophrenia.
But using the plant for medicine doesn’t come without concerns, like its potential side effects, such as a decrease in concentration, memory and the ability to think straight, and its psychoactive ingredient, THC.
That’s why more and more research is being conducted on CBD benefits — exploring the properties of another class of ingredients found in cannabis called cannabinoids. Researchers are finding that cannabinoids act as ligands that bind to proteins and modulate receptors in the brain and throughout the body. (1)
But did you know that there are several common plants that actually mimic the biological activity of cannabinoids? These plants contain compounds that are “cannabimimetic,” which means that even though they don’t share the same biological structure as cannabinoids, they have similar effects on the body.
These herbs and superfoods that mimic cannabinoids are of increasing importance among researchers who study the medicinal value of cannabis. They work by nourishing our endocannabinoid system (ECS) — a biological system that’s made up of neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and other areas of the central and peripheral nervous systems.
Cannabinoids and the Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system plays a role in many cognitive and physiological processes, and is responsible for maintaining homeostasis, or a stable, well-functioning internal environment.
It wasn’t until scientists started studying the beneficial effects of cannabis that they discovered this biochemical communication system in the human body. And now it’s thought to be one of the most important physiological systems involved in maintaining our health. This incredible system is made up endocannabinoid receptors that respond to cannabinoid compounds, which can be found in cannabis and a number of other plants.
Endocannabinoid receptors are found throughout our bodies — in our brains, immune cells, connective tissues, glands and organs. Research published in Pharmacological Reviews points out that modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system holds therapeutic promise in a wide range of diseases and pathological conditions, including mood and anxiety disorders, cardiovascular disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer. (2)
It’s these cannabinoid receptors, which are found in all vertebrate species, that allow for a variety physiological processes to take place within the body. So far, researchers have identified two types of cannabinoid receptors — CB1 receptors, which are present in our connective tissues, glands, organs, gonads and nervous system, and CB2 receptors, which are found in the immune system. And although thousands of studies have been conducted on the role of cannabinoids in the body, scientists believe that we are just beginning to scratch the surface.
It was once believed that only THC and a few other phytocannabinoids affected these receptors, but we are now learning that other plants and foods can modulate them as well. Cannabimimetics, the compounds that mimic cannabinoids, are also able to bind to cannabinoid receptors and have a positive effect on the endocannabinoid system.
10 Herbs & Superfoods that Mimic Cannabinoids
1. Essential Oils of Rosemary, Black Pepper, Ylang Ylang, Lavender, Cinnamon and Cloves
Terpenes, the aroma molecules found in essential oils, engage CB2, the cannabinoid receptor that’s found predominately in the immune system. Black pepper, lavender, clove, rosemary and cinnamon essential oils contain a sesquiterpenoid that’s called beta-caryophyllene (βCP).
In vivo studies show that βCP selectively binds to the CB2 receptor and that it’s a functional CB2 agonist, meaning that it initiates a physiological response. βCP is a major component in cannabis and a common constituent found in essential oils of numerous spice and plant foods. Therefore, essential oils containing βCP have natural cannabimimetic effects and can be used as functional non-psychoactive CB2 receptor ligands that have anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting effects. (3)
Echinacea is a coneflower that’s known as a powerful immune system stimulator. People often use echinacea to reduce the chances of catching a cold and reducing the duration of cold symptoms. Some other echinacea benefits include its ability to alleviate pain and improve mental health.
Echinacea contains fatty acid compounds called N-acylethanolamines, which are known to bind to and activate cannabinoid receptors. When engaging with CB2 receptors, these compounds in echinacea help to regulate immune function and reduce inflammation. (4, 5)
Recent research shows that truffles, specifically black truffle, or Tuber melanosporum, contain anandamide and the major metabolic enzymes of the endocannabinoid system. Anandamide is a mood-enhancing compound that might play a role in the truffle’s maturation process and its interaction with the environment, according to research published in Phytochemistry.
Studies show that anandamide is well-equipped with endocannabinoid-binding receptors and releases chemicals in the human brain that have a similar biological mechanism as THC. That’s why some scientists are even calling anandamide a “bliss molecule,” as it may help to improve your mood, appetite, memory and fertility. (6, 7)
Like black truffles, cacao nibs contains anandamide, an endocannabinoid that’s produced in the brain and is known as the bliss neurotransmitter. Cacao also works to deactivate fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which is an enzyme that’s part of the endocannabinoid system and breaks down anandamide. This allows the body to retain the bliss-promoting compound at higher levels, allowing you to feel more relaxed and euphoric. (8)
Helichrysum italicum is a plant that’s known for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial and antifungal properties. The plant has been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years and today, helichrysum essential oil is often used as a natural mood stabilizer and immune-booster.
Helichrysum is a major producer of compounds that mimic cannabigerol (CBG) and cannabigerol acid (CBGa). These particular compounds are known to be one of the most structurally diversified types of phytocannabinoids that are found in the cannabis plant. More research is needed to determine exactly how these non-cannabis CBG compounds work within the body, but researchers believe that it begins from the plant’s aromatic acid. (9)
6. Omega-3 Fats
You’ve probably heard about the many omega-3 benefits before, but researchers are discovering that some of these benefits come from the body’s ability to convert omega-3 foods into endocannabinoids.
A recent study conducted at the University of Illinois found that cannabinoids are produced naturally in the body from omega-3 fatty acids. When scientists analyzed animal tissue, they discovered an enzymatic pathway that converts omega-3-derived endocannabinoids into more powerful anti-inflammatory molecules that bind to receptors in the immune system.
This means that omega-3 fats can actually produce some of the same medicinal qualities as cannabis, like supporting the immune system and reducing inflammation, without the psychotropic effects. (10)
Kava root has been used for centuries for medicinal and recreational purposes. Today, kava is most commonly used to calm anxiety, stress and insomnia, and it’s used for headaches, muscle pain and even cancer prevention.
Kava contains compounds that are called kavalactones, and one in particular, yangonin, is able to interact directly with CB1 receptors. Scientists believe that these specific compounds that are able to interact with proteins of the endocannabinoid system are responsible for kava’s well-known anti-anxiety effects. (11)
Maca root is a type of cruciferous vegetable that’s available in powder form. It’s considered an adaptogen that helps the body to deal with stress, and it has been used as a superfood in regions of the Andes Mountains for thousands of years.
A recent study published in the Journal of Natural Products suggests that maca root contains compounds called N-alkylamides (NAAs) that mimic the biological actions of cannabinoids. These compounds found in maca are said to have an effect on various protein targets in the endocannabinoid system. (12)
Copaiba oil resin, or Copaifera reticulata, is used in Brazilian folk medicine as a healing and anti-inflammatory agent. Studies also show that copaiba has neuroprotecting effects following acute damage to the central nervous system.
Research shows that 40–57 percent of copaiba oil is made up of β-caryophyllene, a dietary cannabinoid that has powerful anti-inflammatory effects. β-caryophyllene binds to CB2 receptors and inhibits pro-inflammatory pathways. (13)
10. Holy Basil
Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is a plant that’s used in traditional medicine for a number of health ailments, including respiratory conditions, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis and cancer. (14)
Like capaiba oil and many other essential oils, like black pepper, lavender and clove, holy basil contains β-caryophyllene, a compound that mimics those of cannabis by reducing inflammation and pain.
Researchers believe that compounds in holy basil work as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR) agonists, or activators, that help to regulate brain inflammation and oxidative stress. This may help to improve symptoms of epilepsy, as the condition has been linked to low levels of cannabinoids and PPARs. In this way, cannabis and holy basil work similarly. (15)
Any time you are adding a new herbal product to your health regime, it’s best to check with your healthcare provider to be sure that there aren’t any interactions with your prescribed medications, if you’re taking any.
The proper dosage of these herbs and superfoods, especially when you are using them to improve the symptoms of a certain condition will vary, depending on the product formula and brand. Make sure to read the label carefully to determine the correct dosage for you. If you are experiencing any adverse side effects after using any of these herbs or superfoods, stop using it and consult your healthcare practitioner.
- Researchers are beginning to explore a number of plants and superfoods that contain compounds that are “cannabimimetic,” meaning that even though they don’t share the same biological structure as cannabinoids, they have similar effects on the body.
- These cannabimimetic plants and foods nourish the endocannabinoid system — a biological system that’s made up of neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and other areas of the central and peripheral nervous systems.
- By acting like cannabinoids and nourishing the endocannabinoid system, these plants and foods may help to improve the symptoms of a number of health conditions, from depression, to Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. Plus, users don’t have to be concerned about the potential unwanted side effects of using cannabis.
10 Herbs & Superfoods that Mimic Cannabinoids
- Essential oils of rosemary, black pepper, ylang ylang, lavender, cinnamon and cloves
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Holy basil