The human body is an incredible combination of elegance and complexity. After hundreds of years of medical science, we only know a fraction of what it is truly capable of. Interestingly, researchers have made a new discovery as of late, linking two seemingly unrelated organic plants—marijuana and chili peppers—together as contributors to our immune system, and this can potentially lead to new therapies for diabetes and colitis.
Marijuana and chili peppers couldn’t be further apart in people’s minds: one is a commonly used recreational drug, while the other is a spicy food ingredient known to set fire to the taste buds. But according to researchers at the University of Connecticut (UConn), each interacts with the same receptor found in the stomach that is known to have a relationship with the immune system, the gut, and the brain.
Let’s get more specific: the chemical in chili responsible for this interaction is capsaicin, and it is the chemical that causes the burning sensation in the mouth after eating chilies. The capsaicin receptors are found in the mouth and, oddly enough, all throughout the gastrointestinal tract, which scientists and researchers have yet to find a reason for.
Knowing this curious fact, the researchers at UConn fed capsaicin to mice and found that it reduced inflammation in their gut. In fact, the researchers actually cured mice with type 1 diabetes by feeding them chili peppers, and when looking into why this occurred on a molecular level, the researchers saw that capsaicin was binding to a receptor called TRPV1, which is found on specialized cells throughout the GI tract. Further investigation found that when capsaicin binds to this receptor, it causes the cells to make anandamide—a compound similar to the cannabinoids found in marijuana, and it was these anandamides responsible for reducing gut inflammation and calming the immune response. The researchers found they could get the same result by feeding mice anandamide directly.
These receptors for anandamide were also found in the brain and are coincidentally the same receptors that react with the cannabinoids found in marijuana to produce its high. Receptors to marijuana in the brain have long been a mystery to scientists—they don’t seem to be connected to any specific bodily function.
The researchers also wonder why anandamide might relay messages between the immune system and the brain, but know now that it plays a role in healing the gut. They continue to work with mice subjects to further explore this relationship but know that it’s difficult to experiment with marijuana as a federal license is required. The legalization of the drug in certain states may prove to work for their benefit and will make it easier to test whether anandamide or other cannabinoids could be used as a therapeutic medication to treat disorders involving the stomach, pancreas, intestines, and colon.