From Our Cannabis Brain-Trust

Dr. Watkins is a member of the NatuRx advisory board. He is a neuroscientist, terpene expert, and Chief Scientific Officer of LucidMood, where he formulates and validates experimental products.

Have you ever experienced so much anxiety? So many unwanted moments of stress? Coronavirus is disrupting every aspect of our lives, and many people are struggling to hold back the worry, fear, and physical discomfort that comes with a steady stream of generationally unprecedented news.

Fortunately, we still have the great outdoors, the family dinner table, and FaceTime. We can catch a breath of fresh air, decompress over a home-cooked meal, and catch up on overdue conversations with old friends.

And we still have my favorite health and relaxation tool: cannabis. Thank goodness that local governments across the country have recognized this plant as an essential! You’ve known its virtues, I’ve known them, and now the world is getting hip to the truth about cannabis.

Since my graduate studies and current research focus on brain science and the behavioral benefits of cannabis, friends often ask me to explain exactly how cannabinoids and terpenes—the plant’s active compounds—work to reduce anxiety. There’s a very long and complex scientific answer, of course, and there’s the jargon-free layperson’s version. Here’s how I split the difference when explaining it.

There are a number of uniquely intertwined neural systems within your brain that are responsible for a myriad of physiological mechanisms, including mood, sleep and wake cycles, attention and memory, autonomic (think automatic and unconscious) functions, and so many more that we would need to start a full lecture series. These systems are sometimes localized to certain brain regions, while other times they reach throughout the entire body. Although nothing in the brain is completely compartmentalized, where you can assign a single function to a single system, we can still discuss the primary actions of some of these different systems.

Related: Is CBD For Anxiety Essential? Damn Straight

The endocannabinoid system (ECS), widespread throughout the brain and body, impacts a variety of functions such as pain, hunger, mood, inflammation, digestion, reward, and stress. Before we get too far into the ECS, let’s take a moment to discuss how systems respond to external and internal stimuli. In simplistic terms, a neural system relies on two main components, a neuroreceptor and a ligand. Think of a lock and key, where only certain keys can unlock certain locks. Neuroreceptors are similar to a lock while ligands are similar to keys. In the context of the ECS, the primary neuroreceptors include cannabinoid receptors type 1 and 2 (CB1r, CB2r), and the primary ligands include anandamide (AEA), 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), and phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD. The first two ligands, AEA and 2-AG, are endocannabinoids, meaning they are naturally made in our bodies. If you have ever heard of or experienced a “runner’s high,” you can thank AEA for the euphoric feeling. The ligands we will discuss here are phytocannabinoids (originate from plants), and include compounds like THC and CBD.

The ECS is primarily a regulatory system, meaning it helps control how strongly other systems act. As mentioned earlier, no systems are fully independent, and the ECS is a great example of this. The widespread nature of the ECS is one reason why it affects so many functions in our bodies, including stress. Notably, the ECS interacts with several systems that control stress and anxiety such as the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). These systems work together to modify your stress and anxiety response by releasing chemicals within the brain and throughout the body. The ECS acts as a sort of conductor, regulating the strength of activation in each section of these stress-related systems. Although it seems straightforward in this simplified model, how you personally choose to activate your ECS is not always so straightforward.

The cannabis plant contains a variety of compounds that can affect anxiety, but for now we will stick with THC and CBD. Both THC and CBD act within the ECS and allow you to take some control over your own stress levels. However, it is important to note that A) more THC is not always better and B) THC and CBD cannot be used interchangeably. Start with low amounts of THC intake, especially if you are a beginner. Even though the standard edible dose in dispensaries is 10mg, it is recommended that you begin with 2.5mg and work your way up. It is always easier to add more THC later than it is to undo taking too much on your first time. If you are worried that any THC is too much, then start with a CBD product. There is preliminary evidence that CBD is effective for stressful moments. If you have more experience with THC and CBD, then look for cannabis products with more CBD than THC, like a 1:2 or 1:1 THC:CBD ratio. For a light high that focuses on stress relief, I tend to look for a 1:2 THC:CBD ratio like we offer with LucidMood’s Luminous pen.