CBD and Your Brain Messengers

CBD and Your Brain Messengers

How CBD Balances Your Neurotransmitters for Better Mind, Mood & Memory

by Hyla Cass MD

What You’ll Learn

  • Why your neurotransmitters, or  brain messengers, are so important 
  • The different types of neurotransmitters and how they act on your brain 
  • How CBD interacts with neurotransmitters to improve your mind, mood, and memory

My mission is to help my patients and readers be as happy and brain-healthy as possible. A major element in brain function are the neurotransmitters. They are the essential chemical messengers of the brain. Everything from regulation of mood and stress levels to inflammation and infection involves neurotransmitters –  and they go on to be regulated by the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS, in turn, can be influenced by the cannabinoids, the most abundant one being cannabidiol or CBD. 

In order to heal the brain you first need to understand it, including the roles of CBD and neurotransmitters. Let’s get to know our neurotransmitters. 

Neurotransmitters as Chemical Messengers

 Trillions of nerve cells, called neurons, are scattered throughout the body but are most highly concentrated in the brain. They connect to one another via branches called dendrites and axon terminals, linking together like interconnecting highways. 

If one neuron wants to talk to another, it doesn’t simply tap its friend on the shoulder. The two cells never touch physically. They use messengers called neurotransmitters to send messages over small gaps between neurons, called synapses, just like friends passing notes in class. 

cbd brain messenger

Neurons use axons for sending signals and dendrites for receiving them, both of which project from the neuron’s cell body. Dendrites are thin branches that project from most of the surface of the cell body. The axon, in contrast, extends one solid, long arm out of the cell body then splits off into spindly fingers called axon terminals. The tips of these axon terminals are filled with neurotransmitters and sit very close to the dendrites of other neurons. The space between the axon terminal and the dendrite is the synapse, and it’s where neurotransmitters come out to play. 

When a “sending” neuron is activated by an electric impulse, the impulse triggers the axon terminals to release neurotransmitters into the synapse. On the other side of the synapse, the dendrites of the receiving neuron are lined with receptors. The released neurotransmitters attach to these receptors and send a specific message to the receiving neuron. Depending on the type of neurotransmitter and the type of receptor, that message may activate the neuron, sending an electrical impulse down its axon, or reduce its electrical activity, telling it to calm down. 

Think of neurotransmitters and their corresponding receptors like a lock and key. There are a variety of neurotransmitters and they all have different shapes. Each specific neurotransmitter shape or “key”  “locks” into a specific shape of receptor “lock.”

Once a neurotransmitter has delivered its message, it is released from the receptor site and returns to the synapse. It might then be reabsorbed by the neuron that sent it, where it can be used again, or it might be broken down and its components recycled.  

This is what we mean when we call neurotransmitters “chemical messengers.” They send messages between neurons. 

Each neuron, on average, makes more than 1,000 synaptic connections with other neurons. In total, there may be between 100 trillion and quadrillion synapses in the brain. Moreover, these synapses are not random but form patterns that give rise to what are called circuits in the brain. These form the basis of behavior and of mental life. How you think and feel – your mood, alertness, level of relaxation, and the state of your memory – is affected by the fine-tuned activity of these circuits, which are controlled by the interplay of the various neurotransmitters. It can get pretty complicated here, but I will give you a broad overview of some of the most common neurotransmitters and how they behave in the body. 

Do note that neurotransmitters can also exert effects outside of the brain, acting as both neurotransmitters and hormones. Many of us are familiar with adrenaline’s central role in the stress response. It not only activates the brain, but also regulates vital functions such as the heartbeat. 

CBD & Neurotransmitters

CBD activates the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a modulating system designed to keep your body in a relaxed state, maintaining homeostasis or balance. “Balance” means it checks in with your body and determines what you need, whether that be more or less of a certain neurotransmitter or action, and adjusts your physiology accordingly. 

As I explained in my blog on the ECS, this is why CBD can have so many different, seemingly contradictory effects in different contexts. It helps the ECS excite activity where function might be low and calm activity where function might be high. 

What does this mean for brain function? How does CBD impact different neurotransmitters in different contexts?  Below is a broad overview of the most common neurotransmitters, and how CBD interacts with them. 

Dopamine 

  • Dopamine makes you feel good. Its pleasurable sensations encourage our body to do more of what’s good for it, like eating and procreating, making it a necessary part of learning and motivation.
  • Too little dopamine activity leads to “reward deficiency syndrome” which, as it sounds, makes it more difficult for people to feel pleasure. Seeking the pleasure that others feel naturally, these individuals may self-medicate through artificial means such as substance use, thrill-seeking behavior, overeating, gambling, and sex addiction. Likewise, these individuals are more prone to ADD/ADHD, addiction, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other psychological conditions.
  • Too little dopamine can also cause Parkinson’s Disease, a disorder that creates severe, uncontrollable muscle tremors. It arises when 60-80% of the dopamine-producing neurons in the basal ganglia have been damaged. 
  • Too much dopamine is associated with schizophrenia and is part of the mosaic of neurological activity that causes delusions and hallucinations. In addition, when a stimulus causes a temporary burst of dopamine to be released, meaning it feels really good, it can create the potential for addiction. When we crave some substances, like cocaine, or behaviors, like gambling, we are not craving the thing or action itself, but the dopamine hit it gives us.

What CBD does for Dopamine:

Dopamine works on parts of the brain implicated in addiction, where “reward deficiency syndrome” is often at play. As a result, it may help you overcome an addiction or dysfunctional habit by supplying the dopamine your brain craves, but in a healthy way. I have utilized it extensively as a tool in my addiction practice, as well as helping individuals to wean off psychotropic medications.  

Serotonin 

  • If dopamine is responsible for good feelings, then serotonin is responsible for good mood. Scientists theorize that decreased serotonin causes depression; thus, it is the target of many common antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Celexa. Serotonin is associated with sleep patterns, dreaming, and visions. It influences many physiological functions, including blood pressure, digestion (a majority of serotonin is made in your gut), body temperature, and pain sensation. Serotonin also affects mood, as well as circadian rhythm, the body’s cyclical response to the changes of day and night. According to a fascinating new study in the respected journal Nature, serotonin may influence the expression of genes, helping to determine that certain genes are turned on and others, turned off.  
  • Too little serotonin is associated with depression, anxiety, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), reduced sex drive, carbohydrate cravings, sleep disturbances, increased sensitivity to pain, emotional volatility, including violent behavior against self and others; obsessive thinking; alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide.
  • Too much serotonin can result in serotonin syndrome, a potential side effect of combining serotonin-boosting medications. Theoretically,  it can also occur when combining serotonin-boosting medication with serotonin precursor supplements, though reports of this are few and far between. Regardless,  when recommending a serotonin precursor to someone on medication, we recommend a 6 hour gap between them. When excessive serotonin accumulates, it can cause headaches, confusion, restlessness, rapid heart rate, diarrhea, shivering, goosebumps, muscle rigidity, and, in severe cases, high fever, and seizures.

What CBD does for Serotonin:

CBD increases the amount of serotonin in your brain, giving you the chemical benefits promised by antidepressants without the host of unpleasant and sometimes dangerous side effects. Indeed, a Spanish study published in 2016 used rats to show CBD “induces rapid-acting antidepressant-like effects” through its action on serotonin and glutamate receptors.

For my nighttime snack hack to boost serotonin and improve sleep click here.

GABA 

  • As I wrote in a previous blog, GABA’s (gamma-aminobutyric acid) job is to calm cells and decrease their activity. It counteracts glutamate and other excitatory neurotransmitters, and turns off your fight-or-flight response once the threat has passed. As such, GABA regulates brain function, produces a focusing effect, and protects the nervous system against overload that can lead to over-excitement, impulsive lapses in judgment, and/or cell death. Like serotonin, GABA has a role in gut motility, appetite, and sleep. GABA is also involved in immune function and blood pressure. 
  • Not surprisingly, reduced levels of GABA in the brain and nervous system are linked to anxiety, tension, substance abuse disorders, and insomnia. 

What CBD does for GABA:

Remember, the ECS wants to bring your body into a relaxed state, and GABA is essential for relaxation. CBD increases GABA bringing the calmness and clearer focus that come along with it. Its effect on GABA is also part of the reason why CBD can alleviate irritable bowel symptoms. 

Click here to learn more about how GABA is involved in anxiety and what else you can do to boost GABA

Glutamate 

  • GABA and glutamate counterbalance each other. If GABA is your cellular brakes, then glutamate is your gas pedal. It excites neurons, causing them to fire or activate. Glutamate is by far the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain. It also helps to forge links between memories.
  • Too much glutamate can be toxic. If your cells become too excited and fire excessively, it can lead to cell death. This phenomenon, called glutamate toxicity, is one of the primary mechanisms that causes brain damage after a traumatic brain injury. Excess glutamate is also thought to be involved in neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease).
  • Decreased glutamate levels are thought to cause issues with concentration and mental stamina, and low energy. There is research that links low glutamate function to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue syndrome. 

What CBD does for glutamate:

The ECS tends to decrease the availability of the stimulating neurotransmitter glutamate. In fact, CBD is excellent at lowering glutamate, reducing the amount of glutamate-induced brain damage after a traumatic brain injury if administered shortly after the injury is sustained. For more info on brain injury, see my blog.

However, as I’ve said, the ECS balances our neurochemistry and can both increase and decrease the same neurotransmitter in the body depending on what is required. Sometimes, as in the case of glutamate toxicity, we need less of it, but sometimes, as in the case of depression, we may need more glutamate activity. The same Spanish study showing that CBD can enhance serotonin in the brain, found it can also enhance glutamate. Both of these, the study suggests, contribute to CBD’s antidepressant effect. 

However, as I’ve said, the ECS balances our neurochemistry and can both increase and decrease the same neurotransmitter in the body depending on what is required. Sometimes, as in the case of glutamate toxicity, we need less of it, but sometimes, as in the case of depression, we may need more glutamate activity. The same Spanish study showing that CBD can enhance serotonin in the brain, found it can also enhance glutamate. Both of these, the study suggests, contribute to CBD’s antidepressant effect. 

Acetylcholine 

  • Acetylcholine is involved in movement, learning, mental alertness, memory, heart rate, promotion of bodily secretions, and dilation of blood vessels.
  • A deficiency in this chemical is probably the single most common cause of declining memory. To this point, those with Alzheimer’s have low levels of acetylcholine which shows up as depression, poor learning, memory loss, poor concentration, difficulty visualizing, lack of dreaming, and dry mouth.
  • Too much Acetylcholine can overexcite muscles. Rampant acetylcholine is thought to cause some of the uncontrolled movements in Parkinson’s disease. Nerve agents used in chemical warfare and some pesticides create an influx of acetylcholine that can lead to paralysis, as the muscles become so overstimulated they simply cannot move. 

What CBD Does for Acetylcholine:

Cannabinoids can prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, allowing more of it to stay in your brain, and allowing it to exert a stronger effect. This is the same action Alzheimer medications try to achieve in the brain.

Studies point to CBD as having great promise as a defense against Alzheimer’s disease. In a 2006 study published in Molecular Pharmaceutics, a team of University of Connecticut researchers reported that cannabis “could be considerably better at suppressing the abnormal clumping of malformed proteins that is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease than any currently approved prescription.” The research team predicted that cannabinoid-based medications “will be the new breakout medicine treatments of the near future.” 

Certain prescription medications work by inhibiting an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter involved in memory and cognition. Scientists have learned that cannabinoids – in particular, THC – act in a similar way as they also inhibit acetylcholinesterase. CBD has also been shown to enhance the production of BDNF or brain derived nerve growth factor, restoring lost neurons and their connections.

Adrenaline

  • Adrenaline is your “motivator,” stimulating you and helping you respond to stress. This “stimulation” is a release of energy in the form of glucose (blood sugar) that adrenaline triggers so that your body is pumped up and ready to respond to whatever life throws at it. This rush of energy stimulates both mind and body, much like a hit of sugary food. Adrenaline also acts as a diuretic, increasing the need to urinate.
  • Too much adrenaline is akin to too much stress. You feel anxious, restless, and your heart rate may increase. Studies have shown that prolonged stress can contribute to weight gain, hypertension, mental health issues, and much more. 
  • Though rare, too little adrenaline causes an inhibited stress response. Those with low adrenaline may experience fatigue, muscle weakness, depression, weight loss, low blood pressure, diarrhea, headaches, and salt cravings.
  • We can become addicted to stress! Adrenaline keeps us going, but after a while it can become addictive. When the stimulus stops (such as no deadlines while we are on vacation), we experience adrenaline withdrawal, accompanied by restlessness, vague feelings of unease, and a strong desire to “do something,” anything, to restart the stress cycle and get the adrenaline pumping once more. 

 

If and when we finally let go, we collapse into a heap—depleted, depressed, and exhausted. We may feel blue or bored. Our “get up and go” has “got up and went.” We need, in short, to relax, regroup, and restore ourselves.  

What CBD does for Adrenaline:

Remember, the ECS’s job is to maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis, by definition, is achieved only when your body is relaxed, not in the midst of a fight or flight reaction. As you probably guessed, the ECS lowers adrenaline levels. A study in the British Journal of Pharmacology tested the effect of cannabinoids on rabbit adrenal glands and found that “cannabinoids inhibit adrenaline secretion.” 

This is the first step to slowing down. Rather than being driven by stress, we need to re-create a lifestyle built on balance, with time out  for rest, relaxation, and restoration. CBD gives us the pause we need to begin to think more clearly about our goals, our lifestyle, and overall health. 

Conclusion

One of the most awe-inspiring mysteries of brain science is how neuronal activity within circuits gives rise to behavior and, even, consciousness. We don’t mean to oversimplify by saying that the level of any signal neurotransmitter in the brain, such as serotonin, is the only influence on mood and behavior, nor that CBD is the singular key to regulating them. There is a delicately balanced system in place involving our genetic makeup, environmental influences, memories, and neuronal health. 

We can, however, influence neuronal activity by supplying the right nutrients to make them work optimally, including CBD and the raw materials to produce the neurotransmitters. To put it simply: deficiency or dysfunction will leave you feeling unmotivated, tired, depressed and/or anxious, while the right balance of the right nutrients will help you feel on top of the world.

With your new understanding of neurotransmitters, you have a better idea of how deficiencies can change your life and how CBD can help get you back on track.

Congratulations, you are on your way to better health!

Resources and References:·

GABA and Glutamate in Fibromyalgia and ME/CFS

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