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When it is working properly, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) keeps our appetite, satiety, and weight finely balanced. CB1 cannabinoid receptors in our brain are responsible for signaling that it’s time to eat when we need food, rousing our appetite and sharpening our sense of smell so food is extra rewarding. CB2 cannabinoid receptor activation, on the other hand, works to reduce food intake and prevent the buildup of body fat.

Back in ancient times, when only fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables were available to eat, it was easier to naturally keep our ECS in balance. But our diet is so out of whack in the modern world that our CB1 receptors are stuck in overdrive mode, reinforcing an aberrant feed-reward-feed loop from all the sugary, high-fat foods we consume. One study on mice found that when the rodents were fed a diet high in fat and sugar for 60 days, their CB1 receptors became overactive, which prevented the secretion of amino acids meant to reduce appetite when the system is working properly. On the other hand, our CB2 receptors — which are activated by plant-based foods like leafy and bitter greens, olive oil, and various spices — are essentially undernourished in a typical Western diet that’s heavy on carbs and processed food.

Omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies also distort how our cannabinoid receptors function. These healthful fatty acids keep our ECS humming along smoothly. But when you are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids (as many Americans are), your ECS function becomes impaired.

The health of your gut microbiome (the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut) is also essential and not just because it aids with effective and efficient digestion. Your gut has a “brain” of its own that communicates with the brain between your ears. Medical scientists recognize the importance of the gut-brain axis, which influences inflammation, digestion, and even your moods, emotions, and general well-being. The ECS regulates your gut-brain axis, facilitating communication between the microbiome and the brain. If your diet is damaging your microbiome and causing gut dysbiosis, it’s also skewing your ECS and the way your brain functions.

Physical activity (like we used to do to hunt, grow, and gather our food) is also essential to maintain good endocannabinoid tone. Exercise triggers the release of your natural endocannabinoids, helping you maintain lower stress levels and a healthy weight. But it’s all too easy these days to spend most of our time sitting — in front of our desks, in the car, or on the couch.

The cumulative result of poor lifestyle habits: ECS dysfunction and metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and other degenerative conditions associated with our heavily processed Western diet and sedentary lifestyle.

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An excerpt from The Essential Guide to CBD by the editors of Reader’s Digest and Project CBD. Now available in paperback and as an audiobook.

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