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Endocannabinoids & Stress Signaling: Therapeutic Interventions for Stress-Related Disorders

The endocannabinoid (eCB) system is a complex cell-signaling system identified in the early 1990s by researchers exploring THC. The eCB system works in part as a regulator of the LC-NE system, which is composed of stress hormone-synthesizing neurons that send broad projections throughout the central nervous system. Most current medications target specific neurotransmitters that become dysregulated during periods of depression and anxiety. Due to the eCB system’s relationship with the LC-NE system, it is able to target those transmitters and the body’s central stress response, making it a more comprehensive therapeutic channel.

A frequently cited reason for long-term cannabis use is stress management. Consistent with this, cannabis users have shown reduced emotional arousal and dampened stress reactivity in response to negative imagery.

In a study conducted by Washington State University, 40 cannabis users and 42 non-cannabis users underwent a stress test consisting of both physical and psychosocial stressors. The results demonstrated that cortisol levels and subjective stress ratings were significantly higher in non-users. In contrast, the cannabis users demonstrated blunted stress reactivity; they showed no increase in cortisol and a significantly smaller increase in their subjective stress ratings. Additional studies have shown that synthetic cannabinoids improve sleep quality and diminish traumatic flashbacks in PTSD treatment-resistant patients, and can improve chronic pain, nightmares, and insomnia associated with PTSD. THC treatment has also been found to effectively reduce nightmares and increase sleep quality in PTSD patients.

The field should continue to research the effectiveness of eCB-targeting compounds at treating stress-induced psychiatric disorders, in hopes of finding better therapeutic interventions for those suffering from anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

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