Cannabis has been recognized for centuries to provide a calming feeling for many people who use it to relax and reduce anxiety. People suffering from anxiety and depression have found relief with medical marijuana, but just how does it work with serotonin? Is cannabis an alternative to prescription medication?

What is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that carries messages between the brain’s nerve cells, the central nervous system (CNS), and the body’s tissues and organs. It is a chemical, 5-hydroxytryptamine (5HT), that affects a range of functions such as mood, sleep, pain, appetite, libido, and more. It helps to produce melatonin, the sleep hormone, and is very active in the digestive process. Approximately 90% of serotonin is located in the digestive system.

Chronic stress, chronic pain, a lack of physical activity, or exposure to light can all reduce serotonin levels. Low  levels can cause depression, anxiety, and gastrointestinal issues. Serotonin plays a role in people feeling well and is derived through a biochemical process. 5HT receptors on nerve cells regulate levels. There are seven different 5 HT families and 14 sub-types, all of which work to moderate different functions.


Cannabis and Serotonin

Cannabis is composed of dozens of cannabinoids; the two most prominently found cannabinoids are Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When cannabis is ingested, these cannabinoids interact with the human body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) through specific cannabinoid receptors. Scientists have discovered that serotonin houses cannabinoid receptors which suggests that cannabinoids can help to regulate at least help levels.

The main cannabinoid thought to affect serotonin is CBD. A research study conducted in 2014 published by the National Institutes of Health concluded that CBD exhibited antianxiety and antidepressant effects in animal models similar to antianxiety medication, buspirone, also known as BuSpar.

It is possible that an imbalance in serotonin could be remedied through cannabis use due to the unique interactions with the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoid receptors in the body. People who are already taking antidepressants could possibly feel the drug’s effects further enhanced with cannabinoid increases.

Serotonin Syndrome

When prescription drugs block cannabinoid receptors, they also block serotonin, which could lead to anxiety and depression. Prescription drugs meant to act on cannabinoid receptors could be further enhanced with cannabis use. People with a level that gets too high could experience confusion and an elevated heart rate. This is known as serotonin syndrome or toxicity.

This syndrome is most often caused by medications that increase the levels either by inhibiting uptake or increasing production. Combining medications that increase serotonin levels, such as an antidepressant and migraine medication, could also cause his condition. Increasing the dosage of one or more medications that increase serotonin increases the likelihood of causing serotonin syndrome. Adding cannabis, or the cannabinoid CBD to these medications can also increase this possibility.

Serotonin syndrome is a severe side effect of some medications and could cause symptoms ranging from mild, like diarrhea and shivering to severe, which may include fever, muscle rigidity, and seizures.

It is important to understand how your prescription medication works on serotonin levels prior to adding cannabis to your therapies. If you are considering medical marijuana for anxiety and depression and you are already taking an antidepressant, speak with your doctor to determine a safe and proper dosage to get started.

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