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Cannabinoids, Alzheimer's Disease, and Yoga

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Ram
Cannabinoids, Alzheimer's Disease, and YogaThere’s some good news for people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and for those who are potential carriers of this disease! Researchers from the Salk Institute discovered that marijuana harbors several potent active compounds that clear the toxic amyloid protein that accumulates in AD brains and which is believed to elicit toxicity resulting in memory loss. Although previous other studies have offered similar evidence that cannabinoids (the chemical compounds present in marijuana) might be neuroprotective and reverse symptoms of Alzheimer’s, this particular study got a lot of media attention since the study also demonstrated the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids. Inflammation is an underlying hallmark of AD and with its dual function of clearing toxic amyloid protein and blocking inflammation, gives marijuana a very unique and important role in allowing people with memory loss due to AD to function normally. But does this mean that we all turn to being potheads just to reap the benefits from this neuroprotective weed? Before we seek out alternative routes, let us look a bit deeper into this psychoactive plant and its natural properties. 
Cannabis, the botanical name for weed or marijuana, has three subspecies: sativa, indica, and ruderalis. Hemp, cannabis, and marijuana all belong to the same plant species: cannabis sativa. This plant is known to synthesize a wide range of psychoactive compounds. One specific class of psychoactive compounds is the cannabinoids that affect many important body-mind functions, including an individual’s movement, feelings, and reactions. Interestingly, cannabinoids are produced naturally in the body by humans and animals (endocannabinoids), plants (phytocannabinoids-in cannabis and some other plants), and synthesized artificially (synthetic cannabinoids). Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the most important plant cannabinoid, is also the most widely researched compound, although it is just one of more than 400 known psychoactive compounds. A myriad of physiological effects are attributed to THC including: euphoria, stimulant, muscle relaxant, anti-epileptic, anti-emetic, anti-inflammatory, appetite stimulating, bronchio-dilating, hypotensive, anti-depressant, and analgesic effects. 
Interestingly, one of the main endocannabinoids produced by the human body is termed Anandamide (from the Sanskrit and yogic term Ananda=Joy, bliss, delightful). Anandamide has manifold functions, both physically and physiologically, including eating and sleep patterns, pain relief, rewards, motivation, and pleasure. Studies are underway to boost its levels in the body to treat anxiety and depression. 
Remember the term “runner’s high?” It’s a short-term contentment, bliss, elation, and well-being experienced by people involved in all kinds of physical exercises, including but not limited to athletics, long distance running, and swimming. Yoga practitioners also experience similar feelings and we call it being in the zone (Positive Psychology vs. Yoga Philosophy). Recent studies have attributed these euphoric feelings to the release of various “feel good endogenous chemicals” that produce this response and one such compound is Anandamide. 
So how do THC, Anandamide, and other cannabinoids elicit their neuropsychotic function in the mind-body system? Located in the brain are numerous receptor proteins that specifically bind to cannabinoids. Just as a specific key opens a specific lock, so is the relationship between the cannabinoids and its receptors. When a cannabinoid (endo, plant, or synthetic) engages a specific receptor, it regulates numerous endogenous neurotransmitters and thus elicits physiological and behavioral responses including appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory. However, when a person takes the cannabinoid from outside, the combination of the external and the body’s own natural cannabinoid completely overwhelms the receptor system throughout the brain and body. This then disrupts the normal neural communication and throws the entire physiological system off balance. 
I have already written about Alzheimer's disease (AD) on this blog before (Memory Loss—Meditation to the Rescue). AD is a progressive disease of the brain and the predominant form of dementia, and is characterized by loss of memory and reduced cognitive abilities. As the disease progresses, the individual is unable to perform activities of daily living or recognize loved ones. AD is also the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the total number of those affected by the disease is expected to double by 2050. At the moment, there is no drug to cure or treat this disease. The disease is characterized by an accumulation and build-up of toxic amyloid protein that: a) affects normal nerve-nerve communication, b) damages the areas of the brain involved in memory, and c) promotes neuronal cell death by triggering neuroinflammation.
In this new study Amyloid proteotoxicity initiates an inflammatory response blocked by cannabinoids by researchers at the Salk Institute, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active compound in marijuana, not only appeared to remove the toxic amyloid beta protein in the brain, it also reduced inflammation in the cells thus revealing a dual neuroprotective function. The researchers have cautioned that the study was done in laboratory cell models outside of a human setting, and the findings are preliminary that need to be tested in humans in a clinical trial. What this means is that at this moment there’s no solid evidence to recommend marijuana for people with AD. What then is the alternative? 
Remember, I mentioned endogeneous cannbinoids and Anandamide in particular above. Well, as it turns out, meditation and deep diaphragmatic breathing (pranayama) triggers the production of endogeneous Anandamide and other similar compounds that not only trigger the feel-good response but also block anxiety and the sensation of pain (see High: Insights on Marijuana (The Endocannabinoid system and other Neuroscience) Sebastian Marincolo). While I did not find any scientific study of the effects of yoga asanas on the endocannabinoids system, from my personal experience, I can say that a daily practice of yoga will definitely stimulate the endocannabinoid pathways. When you are engaged in a posture where the asana challenge matches your skill, you have an undivided focus and get totally involved, forgetting everything else but the pose. You are in a state of “flow,” or as Desikachar puts it, “in the zone.” This state requires a whole lot of initial effort to make it accessible (Positive Psychology vs. Yoga Philosophy), but it offers unlimited opportunity to explore and control all mental aspects, including attitudes, emotions, concentration, intent, and faith. Notice how the experience builds contentment and brings a sense of accomplishment. It’s a great positive spiral, and it results in improved health and happiness. My belief is that this emotional state is due to the surge of endogeneous Anandamide and other feel-good chemicals. Thus, instead of smoking pot, one can derive the same benefits of the cannabinoid system through a combination of yoga, meditation and pranayama—I call that “yoga high”!
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