The endocannabinoid system and its receptors are of great importance during prenatal development, but are also important after birth. Many people do not know that there are already natural cannabinoids in breast milk and what role they play in the development of a human being.
In 2004, the European Journal of Pharmacology published a study that reported that all humans are born with cannabinoid receptors, suggesting that endocannabinoids and their receptors have a strong effect during prenatal and postnatal development.
Previously, during the 1970s, it was shown that endocannabinoids could be involved in processes related to food and appetite. However, it took 30 years to detect endocannabinoids in bovine milk and human milk. Shortly afterwards, CB1 receptors of the endocannabinoid system appeared to develop before week 14 of gestation.
What is the action of cannabinoids in breast milk?
Based on these findings, the researchers decided to investigate whether cannabinoids could be an incentive for newborns to start consuming milk. The results of these studies have shown that activation of CB1 receptors is critical for milk absorption. This means that the endocannabinoid system is a fundamental factor in the development of the newborn’s appetite when they first learn to feed.
However, endocannabinoids in breast milk do not only have food-related functions. These components have also been shown to help protect neurons in postnatal brain development .
There is still much to be discovered in relation to cannabinoids in breast milk. For example, cannabinoids are known to adhere easily to fat, which is abundant in breast milk. This is why scientists are currently investigating whether maternal exposure to cannabis during the lactation period has any relation to the transmission of active ingredients from the plant to newborns. However, the process is slowed down by the difficulties in analysing cannabinoids and fats separately.
So far, researchers have developed a method based on saponification, a process similar to that used to make soap, to isolate cannabinoids from the fat in milk. Thanks to this process, various traces of active components of the cannabis plant (such as THC) were detected in the milk. From these findings, researchers and trials suggested that cannabinoids may make the child less sensitive to the psychoactive effects of the cannabis plant compared to adults. Despite this, the effects of these compounds on infants remain virtually unknown, as current techniques are limited when measuring cannabinoids other than THC.