stress cannabinoid
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When You Experience Stress, Your Brain’s Cannabinoid System Gets You Stoned

New research reveals that in situations of stress, your brain’s cannabinoid system releases its own cannabinoids that activate the same brain receptors as THC (the active ingredient in cannabis), essentially making you stoned.

Although a naturally occurring process, the researchers behind the study believe that understanding this stress response may lead to effective treatments for stress, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders that are exacerbated by stress.

Brain’s Own Cannabinoid System Holds Promise for A Myriad of Medicinal Benefits

 Much of the evidence supporting the use of cannabis for medical purposes comes down to the roles of the cannabinoids THC and CBD. Numerous studies have been conducted on the latter, as CBD doesn’t invoke the drug-like feelings that THC does. Medical professionals fear the potential for abuse that comes from THC, including things like cannabis use disorder that can result in serious addiction issues.

Still, many proponents of cannabis as medicine believe that the more highly volatile THC may hold the key to unlocking many of the most profound medicinal benefits. These include potential treatments for insomnia, pain, anxiety, stress, and even nausea associated with cancer and its treatments.

Now, a team of researchers from Northwestern University says they have honed in on a mechanism in the brain’s cannabinoid system that may result in effectively utilizing the benefits of THC but hopefully with much less risk of addiction and abuse.

How Your Brain’s Reaction To Stress Involves Getting You Stoned

In their study, the research team targeted the activity of the brain’s cannabinoid system, hoping to better understand how it reacts in times of stress. This reaction is of particular interest to those looking for a wide range of treatment options, as increased stress can exacerbate other physical and psychological conditions.

“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,” said corresponding study author Dr. Sachi Patel, from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

To get a closer look at the natural processes occurring within the cannabinoid system, the Northwestern team used a new protein sensor that allows them to spot the presence of cannabinoid molecules at specific brain synapses in real-time. Specifically, they wanted to measure the activity of naturally produced cannabinoids on the amygdala of laboratory mice, a key brain region involved in stress reactions and other emotional responses.

As expected, when the mice were exposed to stressful situations, this region of the brain was flooded with cannabinoids released by the brain. This response also occurred with several different types of stress.

Next, the team removed the brain receptors that were the target of the cannabinoids, namely the cannabinoid receptor type 1, to see what would happen to the mice if they could not “receive” the benefits of the cannabinoids being released by their brains in reaction to stress. Sure enough, the mice displayed less ability to cope with stress when they couldn’t take advantage of their own brain’s ability to chemically relieve their stress.

One particular symptom was something called anhedonia, or the inability or lack of desire to enjoy pleasure. In this case, that meant that the “stressed out” mice who couldn’t receive the cannabinoids lost interest in a sugary treat immediately after the stressful event. This is significant, the researchers explain, as anhedonia is “often experienced by patients with stress-related disorders such as depression and PTSD.”

Using the Brain’s Cannabinoid Stress Management Mechanisms to Treat Psychological Conditions

Published in the journal Cell Reports, the study by the Northwestern researchers was able to shed light on the natural mechanisms the brain employs to manage stress, something that had not been done previously. This is a key breakthrough, they say, as learning how to take advantage of the body’s own natural mechanisms is preferable to artificial drugs when it comes to treating medical conditions. And, they note, studying how to employ those effects is the next logical step for researchers.

“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,” said Patel. “There are ongoing clinical trials in this area that may be able to answer this question in the near future.”

Christopher Plain is a Science Fiction and Fantasy novelist and Head Science Writer at The Debrief. Follow and connect with him on X, learn about his books at, or email him directly at