Anandamide is a molecule that is similar in its structure and activities to tetrohydrocannabinol (THC), the primary active ingredient in the marijuana plant. Unlike THC, it is a natural compound found in many animals, including humans. This molecule is part of a group of chemicals known as endocannabinoids that react with the central nervous system and other tissues to regulate a great number of bodily functions. Anandamide is produced to bind to receptors and signal the cells to undergo physiological changes.
The naming of anandamide is based on the term “eternal bliss” in Sanskrit. Its existence was deduced once a receptor for THC was identified. Receptors are proteins on cell membranes that are inactive until an appropriate compound binds to them. This binding signals the cell to initiate specific reactions. The finding of a receptor that binds a drug generally suggests that there is a natural chemical that binds to that receptor.
Binding of anandamide to its receptor can also induce pleasurable feelings. This compound is quickly degraded in the body, however. It does not produce a prolonged feeling of euphoria like the cannabinoid compounds found in marijuana. There are receptors in the central nervous system and throughout the body in all tissues that are activated by this endocannabinoid.
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Anandamide is synthesized when needed. It is not stored in cells. The compound does not last long and is quickly degraded by a number of enzymes. In particular, it is degraded by fatty acid amide hydrolase, which releases fatty acid breakdown products into the cell.
It was thought that anandamide was released from cellular membranes and diffused short distances to its active site. This would be unlike traditional hormones that travel long distances in the body. There is some evidence suggesting that this molecule might be carried within cells in structures composed of fatty molecules.
One of the signaling effects of anandamide is on the implantation of the early fetal cells into the uterus. This compound is thought to help regulate the interactions between the mother and the embryo. It also is produced in parts of the brain involved in memory and movement, indicating that this molecule regulates a wide array of processes in the human body.
The discovery of anandamide was a significant finding and unleashed a whole field of study on similar compounds. This compound is derived from lipids — in particular, a fatty acid called arachidonic acid. There is some evidence that the amount of arachidonic acid in the diet can affect the amount of anandamide in the body.