Your body’s cannabinoids calm you during stress

Endocannabinoids regulate stress-induced behavioral adaptation.


A recent study has shed light on the role of the body’s cannabinoid molecules in helping individuals cope with stress. Researchers have found that these naturally occurring molecules are crucial in calming the body and mind during stressful situations, offering potential insights into stress management and mental health.

When you’re stressed, your brain might release its cannabinoids, similar to the ones found in cannabis, to help calm you down. These natural cannabinoids activate specific receptors in your brain, much like the THC in cannabis.

A recent study at Northwestern Medicine of Northwestern University used mice to understand better how these natural cannabinoids work in the brain. They discovered that during stress, a part of the brain called the amygdala releases these natural cannabinoids. These cannabinoids help reduce the anxiety signals from another part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and emotions.

This research supports the idea that our bodies can cope with stress by releasing these natural cannabinoids. Experiencing stress increases the chances of developing or worsening various psychiatric disorders, including generalized anxiety, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Corresponding study author Dr. Sachin Patel, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine psychiatrist, said, “Understanding how the brain adapts to stress at the molecular, cellular, and circuit level could provide critical insight into how stress is translated into mood disorders and may reveal novel therapeutic targets for the treatment of stress-related disorders.”

The study suggests that problems in the body’s natural cannabinoid system in the brain might make people more vulnerable to developing stress-related mental disorders like depression and PTSD, but this still needs further investigation in humans.

In the study, researchers used a particular sensor to see when these natural cannabinoids were produced in the brain during stress. They found that specific activity patterns in a part of the brain called the amygdala can trigger the release of these molecules. They also saw that different types of stress in mice could lead to the release of these molecules.

When the scientists removed the receptor that these cannabinoids attach to, called cannabinoid receptor type 1, it made the mice less able to handle stress, and they seemed less interested in pleasurable activities after being stressed. This might be related to the loss of pleasure that people with depression and PTSD often feel.

Patel said, “One of the leading signaling systems identified as a prominent drug-development candidate for stress-related psychiatric disorders is the endocannabinoid system.”

Patel, also the Lizzie Gilman Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said, “Determining whether increasing levels of endogenous cannabinoids can be used as potential therapeutics for stress-related disorders is a next logical step from this study and our previous work. There are ongoing clinical trials in this area that may be able to answer this question in the near future.”

This study highlights the remarkable ability of the body’s endocannabinoid system to help individuals stay calm during times of stress. It offers a promising avenue for future research into stress management and mental health, potentially leading to innovative approaches to help individuals cope with the challenges of daily life.

Journal reference:

  1. Veronika Kondev, Mustafa Najeed. Endocannabinoid release at ventral hippocampal-amygdala synapses regulates stress-induced behavioral adaptation. Cell Reports. DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2023.113027.