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The Endocannabinoid System and Mental Illness

CBD and mental illness

Mental illness disorders affect millions of people around the world. In fact, there are more instances of mental illness than any other health disorder and they are the leading cause of disability worldwide. It has even been suggested that by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of disease burden globally.

In addition to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and substance abuse touch nearly every American family and reduce people’s ability to work, go to school, take care of their families, and, generally, lead productive and fulfilling lives.

The Endocannabinoid System Help Maintains Balance

As research and studies uncover more and more about the endocannabinoid system and its role in our bodies, it’s becoming clear that it is crucial to maintaining mental health. Essentially, what we have learned so far is that the endocannabinoid system is one of the most important tools your body possesses in order to achieve balance, or homeostasis.

Basically, your body is undergoing a near-constant effort to keep the peace and maintain balance. As you navigate your day to day life, external stimuli, environmental factors, who you talk to, work challenges you encounter, lack of sleep, stubbing your toe—literally everything—has the potential to throw off your body’s internal balance.

Homeostasis is your body’s effort to keep reactions and systems—essentially all bodily function—inside the correct and healthy “zone”.

This is to ensure that the internal conditions of your body remain more or less constant, despite changing external conditions all around you. Your nervous system works tirelessly to keep your body functioning at its optimal level in all environments and conditions.

How the Endocannabinoid System Works

The endocannabinoid system is the body’s means of accomplishing this balance. If you are a car person then you can think of the analogy of your car’s computer (or engine control unit). This computer constantly monitors and regulates the different functions of the engine and either makes adjustments or illuminates the dreaded check engine light if something is off. Imagine the engine control unit is your central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the sensors, wiring, and circuits are the components of the endocannabinoid system.

If a body system is outside its acceptable range, the ECS is activated by the brain to initiate a solution or at least a response. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for your sweating when you get hot, your dry mouth when you are thirsty, your stomach growling when you are hungry, and your fear response in dangerous situations. These are all attempts to maintain balance. 

Endocannabinoid System and Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common mental disorders that affect people of all ages and walks of life. It is characterized by frequent, excessive, and intense worries and fears about what most people would consider normal situations.

The purpose of healthy levels of anxiety and fear is to alert us to potentially dangerous or harmful stimuli in order to promote survival. The problem is, if our body’s anxiety and fear response is misplaced or disproportional to the intensity of the risk, it can inhibit normal body and social function unnecessarily. This is where the endocannabinoid system comes in.

Cannabinoid receptors, specifically CB1 receptors, throughout the ECS can be activated to reduce the neurotransmitter release that induces our “fight or flight” reaction. Additionally, if you are exposed to the same stressor again and again, then your body’s natural response is to adapt to it and reduce your reaction to it over time. This process is called habituation and the endocannabinoid system plays a large role in making it possible.

Put simply, a large number of neurotransmitter systems are involved in our feelings of anxiety and fear, whether they are justified or not. Because CB1 receptors function to suppress neurotransmitter release in order to maintain balance, the manipulation of the endocannabinoid system (or which the CB1 receptors are a part) is key to controlling anxiety through external means.

Endocannabinoid System and Depression

Similar to how it may help stem feelings of anxiety through the manipulation or suppression of neurotransmitters, the endocannabinoid system’s effect on neurochemicals also connects it with depression. Although the research is still out on whether specific sufferers of depression need a boost or a reduction of serotonin, it is generally agreed that keeping serotonin levels balanced is key to treating people with depression.

It is thought that endogenous endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG affect and regulate the presynaptic release of all other neurotransmitters, including serotonin. In other words, these endocannabinoids regulate the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin before they are able to have their intended effect. The implication is that stimulating cannabinoid receptors may help maintain the balance of serotonin and other neurotransmitters connected to depression.

Endocannabinoid System and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying and extremely stressful event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. PTSD is characterized by the inability to cope with the traumatic event to the point that it interferes with your day to day functioning even years after the event occurred.

The research is still largely in its infancy when it comes to the endocannabinoid system and post-traumatic stress disorder, but PTSD, like depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders are tied intimately to neurotransmitters throughout our brain and wider nervous system.

Because the constituent parts of the endocannabinoid system—its receptors, endogenous cannabinoids, and the enzymes that are involved in the synthesis and breakdown of those endocannabinoids—have been shown to play a large role in the regulation of neurotransmitters, the ECS may be an important place to look when it comes to treating PTSD.

CBD and the Endocannabinoid System

Okay, we’ve established the large role that the endocannabinoid system is thought to play in several different mental illnesses. Essentially, the ECS affects the release, lack of release, and general balance of different neurotransmitters that affect the way we feel and react to certain stimuli. Depending on the specific mental illness, some type of internal or external problem is causing an imbalance in neurochemicals that the endocannabinoid system is unable to correct. Well, what does this have to do with CBD?

Basically, what CBD and other cannabinoids are able to do is tap into this vast communication network that we call the ECS. Just like your body’s internal or “endo” cannabinoids, CBD can bind with CB1 and CB2 receptors found throughout this system.

However, instead of fully triggering them, it temporarily modifies how other endocannabinoids are able to bind with and affect the receptors. This is why CBD is thought to modify bodily responses like anxiety, inflammation, stress, arthritis, and other conditions.

Essentially, the pain or discomfort you are feeling from these different conditions is often your body’s attempt to use the ECS to maintain homeostasis. The problem is that these bodily responses can sometimes be overreactions and can result in worse discomfort. Substances like CBD are thought to step in and keep the ECS from going too far or responding too strongly.

Additionally, it is thought that CBD enhances your natural levels of endocannabinoids by occupying certain enzymes. This can lessen the effects of Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome, which has been theorized to be linked to irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraines, and other treatment-resistant syndromes, as well as possibly to some of the mental disorders we’ve discussed in this article.


Serious study into the endocannabinoid system and its role in and effect on our bodies is still in its beginning stages. However, all the information we have so far seems to point to the fact that it is intimately connected to our nervous system, all sorts of neurotransmitters, and what we feel on a day to day basis. Due to the fact that CBD influences this increasingly important bodily system, CBD may play a critical role in the treatment of different disorders and illnesses in years to come.

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