Here’s How Cannabis Affects Mental Health

In a science kind of mood? Here’s the nitty gritty on how cannabis interacts with mental health, and emotion pathways in the brain.

Sep 30, 2016

Have you ever wondered just how cannabis improves mental health? Unfortunately, research is still struggling to figure out just how the herb impacts mood. However, what has been discovered thus far is nothing short of amazing. Thanks to research over the past decade, we are starting to get a clearer picture of how the plant manages mental health conditions. Here’s how cannabis treats anxiety, depression, and activates pathways that regulate emotional behavior. 

Cannabis, emotion, mood, and mental health

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If you walk into your doctor’s office feeling depressed, you’re likely to be prescribed an antidepressant that boosts serotonin levels. If you are suffering from anxiety, you may be prescribed a benzodiazepine. Benzodiazepines boost another calming neurotransmitter, GABA.

These drugs are well-designed. They engage very specific types of receptors and more or less effectively do what they’re supposed to do: elevate and manage the levels of certain chemicals in your brain.

Cannabis is different. The phytochemicals in the herb interact with each other in complex, sophisticated ways. In a way, they are like a new kind of nutrient. This is especially true when you consume cannabis raw versus smoking or cooking with the herb.

When you consume cannabis, you take in a few active compounds. Most famous are cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are chemicals like psychoactive THC and nonpsychoactive CBD. These molecules directly engage with cells in your body and have far-reaching effects.

The endocannabinoid system and mood

The biological mechanism behind this is the endocannabinoid system (ESC). The endocannabinoid system is a large communication network that triggers chemical reactions which control mood, metabolism, immune function, reproduction, and pain.

Compounds in the cannabis plant interact with this communication network, promoting homeostasis in the body. Homeostasis is the technical term for optimal balance.

In the words of Dr. Ethan Russo, neurologist and Medical Research Director for Phytecs,

[…] The endocannabinoid system, it is sort of a buffer. So CBD can be thought of as a buffer as well – a buffer is something that will work both ways as need be. So, for example, in the endocannabinoid system one of its main roles in the brain is to regulate neurotransmitter function and again, if there’s too much of one kind of neurotransmitter it will bring it down, if there’s too little it will bring it up. – Russo

So, the endocannabinoid system helps control the optimal release of neurotransmitters. A dysfunction in the ECS could create havoc in the brain.

The serotonin system, which is the target of many antidepressant drugs, is triggered by the endocannabinoid system. Drugs and plants that engage the ECS are like taking a step back, acting as a type of director or orchestrator of these emotional and physical responses.

In this sense, cannabis activates multiple brain pathways that regulate emotional response.

Neurons that release GABA are also controlled in part by endocannabinoids. As are neurotransmitters that promote sleep and wakefulness. Yet, here’s where things get more complicated.

Different compounds in the cannabis plant create different chemical reactions in the body. This means that some types of cannabis may be more effective at managing depression and anxiety symptoms than others.

Different cannabinoids do different things

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There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there that cannabis is beneficial to mental health. Especially in anxiety, depressive disorders, and chronic stress. Though large clinical trials are still lacking, research is finally starting to show why the herb may be so helpful in maintaining an appropriate mood.

Some animal studies have shown that THC is most effective for both depression and anxiety at lower doses. In higher doses, the psychoactive may make things worse. This is because THC directly engages a cannabinoid receptor in the brain which regulates fear and anxiety response, along with many other things.

In a 2006 study, researchers wanted to test the effects of  different cannabinoid receptors on anxiety response. Using mice, they found that low doses of THC seemed to ease anxiety-like behaviors.

This is partly because of how THC works. The psychoactive primarily engages CB1 receptors. When too many CB1 receptors were engaged, the mice had a heightened anxiety response.

Yet, the same study also found that nonpsychoactive CBD had anti-anxiety effects in a dose-dependant fashion. Unlike THC, CBD does not directly engage the CB1 receptor. It has several mechanisms of action.

One of which is de-activating an enzyme that breaks down the body’s natural endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are the human version of cannabis.

By stopping the enzyme (enzyme FAAH) from clearing out endocannabinoids, you develop a surplus of the molecules in your body. This means that your body can put more of them to use. Turns out, more endocannabinoids means less anxiety and a better mood.

Here’s what the researchers concluded,

[…] Inhibition of FAAH activity represents a viable and promising approach to the development of treatments for anxiety-related psychiatric disorders.

Additional factors

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Thus far, research suggests that low doses of THC and plenty of CBD are ideal for easing depression and anxiety. Though, the available research is far from complete. Anxiety and depression are also symptoms of dysfunction in other areas of the body.

If you have either celiac or non-celiac gluten intolerance, for example, it’s possible to experience intense psychiatric symptoms. Same goes for decreased thyroid function and autoimmunity. So, it may also be the case that you personally respond better to either THC or CBD depending on the root cause of your psychiatric distress.

Nonpsychoactive CBD is also polypharmacological. While the molecule boosts your endocannabinoid system, it also engages with serotonin, adenosine, and vanilloid receptors throughout the body.

The serotonin receptor can ease depressive symptoms in some people. CBD’s anti-anxiety properties are often associated with its impact on adenosine. Engagement with the vanilloid receptor can ease inflammation and decrease pain. All of these factors contribute to emotional imbalance and troubles with mental health.

HERB has gone into detail on the immune system and mental health in earlier articles. For more information, check out our articles on anxiety and depression

Terpenes, depression, and anxiety

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We are taught that there is a finite number of vitamins and minerals that we need to survive. Yet, if we want to really thrive, our bodies and minds need ample nourishment.

As science progresses, so does our knowledge about nutrition. While it is definitely important to get in all essential vitamins and minerals, there are other phytochemicals that have real and important impacts on our long-term health.

Cannabinoids are some of those phytochemicals. And so are terpenes. Terpenes are the flavor and aroma molecules that give different foods their unique scent and taste.

Some terpenes are vitamins, like vitamin K. Other terpenes interact with the body in different ways, causing cascades of reactions that can help us function in daily life.

Over the past decade, more and more research has come out with findings that terpenes can improve mental health. Cannabis just so happens to be extremely terpene-rich. Further, some of these terpenes actually boost the medicinal benefit of cannabinoids.

Cannabis is capable of producing dozens of terpenes, but here is a very brief summary of what some of these molecules have to offer:


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Some terpenes, like Beta-caryophyllene (BCP), act as cannabinoids in the body. BCP is what gives black pepper and rosemary a spicy flavor. While THC engages both CB1 and CB2 receptors, Beta-caryophyllene specifically interacts with CB2 receptors. These receptors are found primarily in the immune system.

Research from 2014 also found that CB2 receptors play a key role in emotional regulation.Using rodent models, researchers tested BCP’s effect on mice with engaged and blocked CB2 receptors. Mice treated with BCP exhibited less anxious and depressive behavior than those with blocked CB2 receptors.

This led the authors to argue,

The results also support the involvement of the CB2 receptor in the regulation of emotional behavior and suggest that this receptor could be a relevant therapeutic target for the treatment of anxiety and depressive disorders.

An additional study has found that the immune system has a surprising amount of control over social behavior. Researchers discovered that by blocking a single type of immune cell caused hyperactive and abnormal behavior in mice.

This new discovery linking the immune system to social function has major implications for mental health conditions like autism and schizophrenia.

The CB2 receptor is an immune modulator and has been cited as a possible target in a wide variety of modern diseases, including mental health conditions. There is a growing amount of evidence that suggests that inflammation may be a culprit behind depression and anxiety.

Inflammation is a natural response of the immune system, but sometimes things can go awry.

BCP has been identified as an anti-inflammatory immunomodulator. Coupled with the finding that the compound can ease asocial emotional behavior, this chemical seems to have a lot of therapeutic potential.

Yet, both THC and CBD are also immunomodulatory, decreasing inflammation and potentially easing psychiatric symptoms. When all three of these things are combined, you have yourself one powerful medicine.

High BCP strains:

Additional terpenes

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Researchers have also found anxiolytic properties in other terpenes in cannabis. Notably,  linalool and limonene. Linalool is also found in lavender, and limonene is responsible for the clean, lemon aroma in some strains.

When combined with cannabinoids like THC and CBD, these terpenes amplify the anti-anxiety effects of these compounds. This is why choosing strains that are diverse in both cannabinoids and terpenes is an important step in using cannabis to promote health.

Terpenes and cannabinoids have ample medicinal uses by themselves. However, when you consume them together, the medical effects are heightened.

This phenomenon is known as the entourage effect. The more pungent, flavorful, colorful and diverse a cannabis plant is, the greater the health benefits.

High linalool strains:

High limonene strains:

The body is complicated

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After all of this information, it’s safe to say that the body is complicated. Throughout the ages, people have turned to cannabis for relief from all sorts of conditions and ailments, mental health included. Yet, we’re only just now figuring out how and why the herb is so effective.

We still have a long way to go, but it is known that cannabis engages both the immune system as well as mood pathways in the brain. In this sense, it is a broad-spectrum herb with multiple mechanisms of action. Unlike really any pharmaceutical on the market these days, cannabis seems to work its magic by promoting homeostasis in the body.

For this reason, the herb is of significant interest to patients, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies alike. One company has even started trials to test CBD as an antipsychotic in patients with treatment-resistant schizophrenia. All in all, the plant is quite miraculous.

As research moves forward, we’ll only continue to understand how to use this drug for the most effective mental health relief.

Do you like THC or CBD for depression or anxiety? Share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

Sep 30, 2016