The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything the world has seen in 100 years and it has affected the entire population on a level that most were completely unprepared for. The mental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are far-reaching and can manifest differently in each individual. However, one of the most common issues people are currently facing is the added stress and anxiety the pandemic brings with it. Besides the fear of catching the disease, many are also worried for their financial security as the world tries to manage the economic repercussions of a global pandemic. Health and finances are two of the three top reasons why people stress , so having those common stressors heightened by the consequences of a pandemic are sure to send many people into fits of anxiety.
Another consequence of this pandemic is depression. Whether it comes from the loss of a loved one who was taken by the illness, the loss of a job, or just the hopeless feeling that comes with a loss of control, depression is on the rise this year and it’s only trending upwards .
While there is medication available to help with these issues, many people would like to work on their anxiety and depression levels naturally, making lifestyle changes instead of turning directly to prescription drugs. As always, please listen to your doctor when it comes to important issues such as these. If your doctor recommends prescriptives, you should absolutely take their advice. There are a number of natural treatment options available for stress, anxiety, and depression, but before we get into those it’s important to understand how the body regulates these issues and the process needed to remedy them.
The Endocannabinoid System
What it Does
Simply put, the endocannabinoid system maintains homeostasis within the body. If one of the systems it controls experiences some sort of disruption, the ECS will step in and correct the imbalance to bring back equilibrium to the affected system. Human bodies are complex and changes can happen at any time, so conditions need to be kept stable in order for cells to maintain optimal performance.
Endocannabinoids are small molecules that bind to receptors and active them. Interestingly, enough, these molecules are very similar to the cannabinoid compounds produced by cannabis plants. The two major endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-AG. These compounds are made up of molecules within cell membranes and the body is able to produce them on demand.
Endocannabinoid receptors are found on the surface of cells and are used to monitor conditions outside the cell and transmit any information about changes happening within the environment surrounding it. If a large enough change is reported, the ECS will receive the message communicated by the receptors and initiate the proper response to balance the system. Endocannabinoids are able to bind to either of the two main receptors, but the result will depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to.
These are known as metabolic enzymes and are used to destroy endocannabinoids within the ECS systems once they have successfully achieved homeostasis within the body. This helps ensure no overcorrection will be able to occur after the need for the endocannabinoid has ended.
What it Controls
While research is still ongoing, studies have so far found the endocannabinoid system to be linked to processes like appetite, metabolism, pain, the immune system, memory, sleep, reproductive function, nerve function and mood and anxiety .
The ECS and Mental Health
Recent studies have looked into how the endocannabinoid system plays a part in mental health and have determined that it is essential for emotional homeostasis and cognitive function and that chronic stress can impair the ECS, making us more susceptible to mental and physical illness . It has also been well documented that any kind of psychological stress can dramatically increase the rate of depression and anxiety in humans , however researchers are also investigating if the lockdown aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is also adding a different kind of stress on individuals, something more closely related to restraint.
As society works to maintain its distance from each other, we are still being encouraged to remain home and only go out for essentials. This is a form of restraint that could be considered somewhat equivalent to studies performed on mice after they were physically restrained for a period of 24 hours. During that time, the mice were sent immediately into a state of depression, causing a significant drop in anandamide, otherwise known as the endocannabinoid responsible for producing a blissful state of mind in certain brain regions .
Combining all of the above issues into a relatively short period of time and alongside a disaster on a global scale is simply a recipe for damage to the endocannabinoid system resulting in a diminished sense of mental health. So what can be done to help? There are options when it comes to keeping the endocannabinoid system healthy and functioning more efficiently.
How to Boost the ECS
If our endocannabinoid systems are feeling out of balance it’s important to find a treatment that can effectively put it back into balance, resulting in an improved mental health function. These healing options can help improve ECS function by increasing the production of endocannabinoids, decreasing the breakdown of certain endocannabinoids, or decreasing receptor density or signals. Some common options include the use of cannabis, a change in diet, added exercise, and other solutions like osteopathy and acupuncture .
Cannabis has been highly researched and regarded for its ability to interact with and support the endocannabinoid system. Because cannabinoids are so molecularly similar to naturally produced endocannabinoids, the ECS is able to more easily interact with them, which provides humans with the psychoactive and medicinal properties cannabinoids are now known for. For example, the cannabinoid THC is able to attach itself to the CB1 receptor in the brain. The endocannabinoid anandamide is also able to activate the CB1 receptor, however because enzymes will break it down quickly, the effect is not as prolonged as with THC, in which the enzymes are unable to break down as quickly as anandamide. THC is also able to bind to the CB2 receptor, which opens up the possibility of THC having wide ranging effects.
CBD is actually able to affect the levels of endocannabinoids in the brain. Specifically, CBD inhibits the FAAH enzyme which is used to break down the anandamide molecule. As mentioned earlier, anandamide has a naturally occurring blissful effect, however is normally broken down very quickly by enzymes, stifling this effect. As a result of CBD keeping the FAAH enzyme from breaking down anandamide, humans can experience less anxiety after ingesting CBD .
A recent study found that a high intensity endurance run actually resulted in increased levels of anandamide. The study actually focused on ancient humans’ ability to endurance run for their meals, and how humans are wired to run so by doing so they actually boost the endocannabinoid system back to a level it was meant to function at . With that in mind, during this stressful time when people may be unintentionally neglecting their endocannabinoid system, going for a run may be a great way to help keep the ECS functioning at the proper level.
Another recent study had a similar conclusion after it asked women suffering from deep depression to exercise on a bike for just twenty minutes a day at a moderate level. Doing so showed great improvement in their anandamide levels and boosted their mood overall .
Mood enhancement and bliss can come from a variety of different places that don’t have to include cannabis consumption or running. Another recent study concluded that even just taking part in activities that bring a person joy can actively boost the endocannabinoid system. This particular study looked at a group of choir members and asked them to participate in a variety of activities, including biking, dancing, washing dishes, and singing. The highest mood boosts were recorded after the choir members took part in the singing activity, boosting their moods more than exercising did and boosting their anandamide levels by 42% .
What You Can Do
Much of the world is still in some sort of lockdown perhaps making it difficult to do activities that bring you joy. In the study above, a choir found joy by singing together. In the current state of the world, that sort of activity wouldn’t be considered safe at the moment, however there are always options when it comes to seeking out joy. Perhaps the choir could sing together via webcam or some sort of livestream. Perhaps in an area with COVID-19 under a manageable level, the choir could get together outside and keep their distance while they sing. The point is, while you may find it difficult to do the things you love the most right now, it’s likely not impossible.
If you do find yourself seeking more relief, though, give cannabis a try. Cannabinoids such as CBD Oil can be extremely helpful when it comes to boosting the mood, and that’s something we could probably all use right about now.