We’re fascinated with the way phytocannabinoids work in harmony with the body’s own endocannabinoid system. One of the most popular reasons people report using CBD is the positive effect it can have on anxiety.
Why do naturally occurring cannabinoids such as CBD, THC and others seem to help alleviate anxiety?
In essence, it all comes down to the endocannabinoid system which, among other things, is largely associated with our mood and emotional states.
The Endocannabinoid System and Anxiety
In one of our favorite studies about cannabidiol as a potential relief for anxiety disorders, researchers found existing preclinical evidence that strongly supports using CBD for several anxiety-related disorders including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
Because the study found that “overall, current evidence indicates that CBD has considerable potential as a treatment for multiple anxiety disorders” and that CBD works in harmony with the endocannabinoid system, we wanted a better understanding of the connection between the endocannabinoid system and anxiety in general.
Here’s what we discovered.
According to research, the endocannabinoid system is a signaling system within the brain that acts to control neurotransmitter release. The expression of the endocannabinoid system in the limbic regions of the brain causes it to have control over emotional behavior, mood and stress response.
Research shows that a “growing body of evidence unequivocally demonstrates” that disruptions in endocannabinoid signaling could result in depressive and anxious behavioral responses. It also suggests that manipulating endocannabinoid signaling can cause an anxiolytic response.
How does it work?
What exactly is the connection between the endocannabinoid system and anxiety?
To understand this, it’s vital to better understand the endocannabinoid system itself.
A Brief Overview of the Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system has been referred to as one of the body’s most important physiological systems. Basically, it’s responsible for pretty much everything involved with our physical and emotional health. Sleep, mood, pain, digestion, immune response and more…it all comes down to the endocannabinoid system.
There are two main endocannabinoids that have been identified in the human body: anandamide and 2-Archidonoylgycerol (2-AG).
The primary receptor sites in the endocannabinoid system are known as the CB1 (found in the central nervous system) and CB2 receptors (found in the immune system and almost everywhere outside the brain and spinal cord).
Anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word for bliss because of the feelings of happiness it produces, is a neurotransmitter that forms part of a neurochemical system that helps regulate mood (as well as pain and appetite).
It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that our mood, happiness levels, anxiety, fear and ability to endure stress are all controlled by the endocannabinoid system. When anandamide levels are imbalanced, anxiety will almost assuredly ensue.
In the brain, anandamide is broken down by the enzyme fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH). Research suggests that those with increased levels of happiness (think less anxiety) simply have more levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide in their system.
Research shows that anandamide deficiency predicts stress-induced anxiety and suggests that the reversal of stress-induced anandamide deficiency is a key component in the therapeutic effects of FAAH inhibition.
The Endocannabinoid System as a Regulator of General Anxiety
When it comes to managing anxiety, it’s well-known that several different neurotransmitter systems are involved. This, combined with the function of CB1 receptors in the suppression of neurotransmitter release, is why the endocannabinoid system can be regarded as one of the primary regulators of anxious behavior.
In a 2005 review, authors suggested that the mediating effects of cannabinoids (such as CBD) on anxiety-related responses appear to involve both CB1 and non-CB1 cannabinoid receptors. It’s been discovered that brain regions such as the amygdala, cortex and hippocampus (all of which are involved in emotional behavior) are teeming with CB1 receptors.
Research shows that in animal studies where mice are lacking CB1 receptors, they often show anxiety and depressive-like symptoms, as well as significant alterations in their stress response. It was discovered that blocking CB1 receptors in mice induces anxiety, while the inhibition of anandamide metabolism leads to an anti-anxiety effect.
This is something that led researchers to suggest that the endocannabinoid system appears to play an essential role in one’s emotional state and could be a powerful target used in anti-anxiety therapy.
Endocannabinoid Deficiency and Anxiety
Endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome was first proposed in 2004 by Dr. Ethan Russo, neuroscientist and renowned cannabinoid expert. In a groundbreaking study, Russo suggested a deficiency in the body’s natural endocannabinoid levels could be the reason behind some conditions.
Further research indicates that deficiencies in natural cannabinoids could result in a predisposition to developing PTSD and depression. Authors of the study note that there is “evidence the ECS serves in an anxiolytic, and possibly anti-depressant, role.”
The Endocannabinoid System and Anxiety Related to PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can manifest after a particularly disturbing and traumatic event that reaches far beyond typical stressors that can lead to anxiety. Things that might lead to PTSD include things such as violent personal assault, combat, accidents, natural disasters and more.
While at least half of all adults will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lifetime, not everyone will develop PTSD. Those who do, however, may experience persistent thoughts or memories of the event, might startle easily, could experience sleep problems and feel detached or numb. People with severe forms of PTSD can experience significant problems in their personal lives on a multitude of levels.
What does PTSD have to do with the endocannabinoid system?
A 2013 study was the first to discover that individuals with PTSD have significantly lower concentrations of anandamide than people without PTSD.
For the study, researchers divided 60 individuals into three groups: people with PTSD, people with a history of trauma but no PTSD and people with no history of trauma or PTSD.
Brain imaging detected that individuals with PTSD (especially women) had more CB1 receptors in brain regions associated with fear and anxiety than those without PTSD. It was also discovered that they had lower levels of anandamide, which actually binds to CB1 receptors.
According to the study’s author, when anandamide levels become too low, the brain compensates by increasing the number of CB1 receptors, which “helps the brain utilize the remaining cannabinoids.”
Understanding that those who suffer from PTSD could have lower levels of anandamide, it makes sense that CBD has shown to help with PTSD-related anxiety as the non-psychoactive cannabinoid could work as a sort of anandamide replacement, as the two share extremely comparable structural and chemical characteristics.
Research also suggests that endocannabinoid system signaling promotes both the extinction of fear memories and conditioned fear responses, both hallmark characteristics of PTSD-related anxiety.
The Endocannabinoid System and the Fight or Flight Response
Most everyone is familiar with times of considerable stress or when experiencing a stressful event makes us shift into fight or flight mode. “Fight or flight” is also known as the acute stress response and refers to a very real physiological reaction that occurs when a stressful event happens.
The flight or fight response plays a huge role in how we react to stress and danger in our environment. It can be super helpful in some situations because the stress may help us better deal with the threat we’re facing.
Here’s the thing, though. Some people experience feelings of fight or flight when there isn’t any danger. And in cases such as these, anxiety is a large part of the flight or fight response.
It’s been discovered that CBD may help reduce the negative influence of fight or flight through the activation of the adenosine receptor in the endocannabinoid system. Much like CB1 receptors, adenosine receptors are primarily found in the brain and spinal cord.
When adenosine levels are stimulated, there is also a rise in dopamine and glutamate neurotransmitter levels. Dopamine is responsible for perception, motivation and reward, while glutamate is responsible for cognition, learning and memory.
While more research is warranted, it’s suggested that the endocannabinoid system and the interaction and effect it has with adenosine receptors has a significant influence on feelings of fight or flight.
As CBD Popularity Grows, So Will ECS Research
The increasing popularity of CBD and other cannabinoids has led to increased understanding of how these cannabis compounds work in harmony with our bodies. The discovery of the endocannabinoid system has opened the door for a wealth of information on why cannabinoids contain the positive effects they do.
There are numerous studies that show the potential benefits of cannabinoids for the mitigation of anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. Research shows that the endocannabinoid system seems to have a large influence on anxiety, giving us a deeper understanding of not only the potential of cannabinoid therapy but also of anxiety itself.