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    What You Should Know About CBD, Terpenes, and Your Mental Health

    By Rebecca Paredes - 8 min read

    Lavender field


    • Mental health is complex. But historically, treatment has distilled mood disorders and anxiety into individual symptoms and ignored the cause.
    • Mental health can be driven by multiple factors. Cannabis compounds are emerging as a powerful way to provide holistic support to the entire body.
    • CBD and terpenes have anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties, according to early research.
    • By using specific combinations of terpenes and ratios of CBD to THC, you can find a formula that works best for you, your needs, and your unique biology.

    The first time I stood at the base of a sequoia tree, I looked down instead of up. The massive tree’s base was as wide as a car, with thick, red-brown bark mottled by patches of moss. I placed my hand on the trunk and felt impossibly small: I was touching something that was hundreds of years old and would likely still be standing in that spot long after I left, soaking up water through its shallow root system so it could touch the sky.

    Then, I took a step back. High above my head, the sequoia’s dark green leaves kissed the tops of neighboring trees. I traced the touchpoints — that first tree formed a canopy with neighboring sequoias, which stood before a series of pines, which surrounded a small meadow next to a hiking trail, which led to me and the plants at my feet. Everything was connected, breathing in the same fresh air and drinking the same sunshine. Instead of feeling small, I felt alive. I had seen the forest for the trees, and it made all the difference.

    When you look at a system, not a single piece, it shifts your whole perspective. This same shift is happening when we talk about mental health. Anxiety isn’t just anxiety, and depression isn’t just depression. In essence, they can have radically different causes, which means there isn’t a single one-size-fits-all cure. Instead, we need a multi-pronged approach that acknowledges an individual’s needs, circumstances, and biology. And as it turns out, plants are a vital part of that approach — specifically, CBD and terpenes.

    The Ecosystem Inside Your Body

    You are a beautiful combination of molecules, muscle, bone, and skin. Those parts are essential on their own. But together, they form a more extensive system that your body wants to keep in balance.

    Your mental health is part of that system. For decades, scientists have looked at it in pieces, focusing on physical changes in brain structure and neurochemistry to create order out of disorder1. This approach is called reductionism, which states that by breaking down complex biological phenomena into individual parts, we’re more likely to understand a single cause and find a cure2.

    Reductionism has contributed to considerable advancements in biomedical research. Still, it might be an incomplete approach when we’re talking about mental health. In a 2018 study of cannabis strains to treat anxiety, the authors note that the reductionist model has “failed to produce any clinically relevant biomarkers to diagnose any mental illness, nor has any drug been developed from genetic studies of mental illness34.” When we focus on just one issue, like anxiety or mood swings, we’re not looking at the unique factors that can contribute to a condition. We’re looking at the sequoia, not the broader ecosystem.

    The opposite of reductionism is holism or the idea that a complex system can’t be understood by its individual parts. Instead, in the words of Aristotle, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Your mental health isn’t as simple as treating a single symptom. The forest is more significant than a single tree. Anxiety and depression can be caused by wide-ranging factors like stress, genetics, trauma, and your environment. A holistic approach considers all the factors that can contribute to a condition, so treatment isn’t just medication. In essence, it’s therapy, movement, stress management, a balanced diet, more sunshine, and, sometimes, medication.

    CBD and terpenes complement a holistic approach to mental health because they can affect your entire body, addressing different systems to help you feel more balanced overall — from your mood to your sleep quality. Here’s what we know (so far) about how CBD and terpenes work to support your mental health.

    Learn the basics of CBD here.

    How CBD Supports Mental Health

    CBD, or cannabidiol, is a potent molecule that comes from the cannabis plant. It’s one of two main cannabinoids in the cannabis plant (the other is THC, which is what gets you high). CBD molecules bind to a natural system in your body called the endocannabinoid system. This system is responsible for helping to keep your body in balance, a state called homeostasis.

    CBD is beneficial as part of a holistic approach to mental health because it works in more ways than one:

    • Enhances your “bliss” molecule: Instead of just targeting your hormones or only targeting inflammation, CBD molecules stimulate your endocannabinoid system and may enhance anandamide signaling, a cannabinoid your body naturally produces5. You want anandamide in your system — it’s called the “bliss” molecule, and it’s associated with mood and well-being6.
    • Protects your neurons: CBD is neuroprotective, which means it has been shown to reduce damage to the brain and nervous system and promote the growth of new neurons78. Your brain’s hippocampus has a particularly high level of cannabinoid receptors. This indicates that CBD may play a role in balancing your mood and memory.
    • Reduces inflammation: People diagnosed with mental illness are often associated with higher levels of inflammation, which can impact brain activity910. CBD has anti-inflammatory properties, which means it regulates inflammation throughout your entire body and may explain one way it helps balance your mood.
    • Similar properties as antidepressants: Antidepressants have neuroprotective properties: they decrease inflammation, support the production of new cells, and decrease microglia activation — immune cells in your central nervous system11. CBD has been shown to do this, too12.

    So, how does it work? Research into cannabis as a whole is growing, partially because of legalization in parts of the country, and somewhat because it’s finally getting scientific recognition for its beneficial effects on conditions like anxiety, stress, depression, and pain1314. This research tends to focus one of two cannabinoids: THC, the stuff that gets you high, and CBD, which doesn’t. Hemp-derived CBD is legal at the federal level, which is why we’re just now learning more about its mechanisms of action — it’s more accessible to researchers, and now there’s money to support that research — and the evidence so far is compelling, to say the least.

    • In a 2012 double-blind, randomized clinical trial that studied the benefits of CBD for psychosis, CBD helped patient symptoms as well as an antipsychotic medication — without the common side effects of antipsychotic drugs like weight gain or hormonal dysregulation15.
    • In a double-blind preliminary study of 10 people with generalized social anxiety disorder, CBD reduced anxiety and had measurable effects on subjects’ limbic areas, the parts of the brain associated with attention and emotion16.
    • In a double-blind, randomized study of 24 people with social anxiety disorder who were asked to give a public speech, one 600 mg dose of CBD reduced performance anxiety and cognitive impairment17.
    • A 2015 review of the literature found evidence that CBD has the potential to treat social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder18.

    Why CBD Isn’t the Cure-All For Mental Health

    It’s too simplistic to think of CBD as a panacea, just as it’s also easy to believe that a sequoia is just a massive tree. It’s more complicated than that.

    Unlike prescription medication, there’s no recommended dosage of CBD to support mental health. It’s challenging to regulate because CBD can vary widely based on what you’re taking, how you’re taking it, and how it interacts with your endocannabinoid system.

    Here’s one example: a 2018 Canadian study attempted to use a self-reported survey to identify the strains of medical marijuana that best decreased anxiety. The researchers used self-reported findings from 442 participants who used organically grown cannabis from a single source. However, as the authors noted, the study was limited because there’s currently no standardization of cannabis cultivars, so the results varied — no single strain was an overwhelming choice. Even among the most effective strains (Bubba Kush, Skywalker OG Kush, Blueberry Lambsbread, and Kosher Kush), there were individual variances in how well the strains helped people manage their anxiety.

    What does that mean? You need to find a product made by a quality producer, at a dose that works for you, and be willing to experiment until you find a product that makes you feel the way you want to feel.

    The thing is, there’s a way to make the task easier. Just look at the terpenes.

    Related article: Got Coronavirus Anxiety? Terpenes and Meditation Can Help

    Are Terpenes the Future of Cannabis? 

    You’ve benefited from terpenes if you’ve ever lit a soothing lavender candle to relax or felt more alert after inhaling the bright scent of citrus. Terpenes are compounds that give plants their smell and flavor, and the cannabis plant is full of them. Cannabis-derived terpenes may have anxiety-reducing properties: in the 2018 Canadian study, the authors were able to identify specific terpenes that were consistent across the most effective strains associated with reduced anxiety: guiaol, eucalyptol, γ-terpinene, α-phellandrene, 3-carene, and sabinene hydrate.

    Here’s what’s most impressive: terpenes are potent on their own and when paired with CBD. They alter the effects of cannabinoids and contribute to the entourage effect, the mechanism by which THC, CBD, and terpenes complement each other to work better19. But terpenes have their own mechanisms of action, too.

    Terpenes act directly on brain cells and modulate their activity. They do this by crossing the blood-brain barrier when you ingest or inhale them — like when you use full-spectrum CBD oil, which contains terpenes and other plant compounds, or when you use terpenes directly, like a lavender essential oil. Terpenes operate in the body in different ways. For example, B-Caryophyllene acts like a cannabinoid in your body and binds to cannabinoid receptors, while other terpenes like limonene have been found to inhibit the inflammation caused explicitly by toxic lipopolysaccharides20.

    Growers can tweak different ratios of cannabinoids and terpenes, depending on the genetics and environmental growth conditions of the plant. That’s a big deal because some terpenes are associated with specific mood-boosting effects, like soothing linalool, sedative myrcene, or stress-relieving B-caryophyllene212223.You might find that some terpenes are more effective for you than others, and specific terpene profiles will help you relax, quiet anxious thoughts, balance your mood, or simply feel more like yourself. Soon, you may be able to take care of your mental health with cannabis products formulated with terpene ratios that target your relief — all thanks to plants.

    This is already starting. Companies are pairing terpene blends with cannabinoids to create targeted formulas that support specific need states, like calm, sleep, and joy. While we’re still a long way off from having CBD and terpenes prescribed at the doctor’s office, this idea of choosing your own adventure with CBD is a big step forward. It’s a glimpse into the future of CBD and terpenes for mental health: a personalized one, allowing people to tailor their treatment based on their unique needs.

    The bottom line is that mental health is a complex system, not a series of isolated symptoms. It’s stress and stress management, sleeplessness and sleep, anxiety, and calm. CBD and terpenes can help you feel more balanced because of the way they interact with so many different parts of your entire body. In this way, they’re holistic — they’re interacting with the whole ecosystem of you. For a system to work at its peak, all the parts need to work together. The forest is only as healthy as its trees, and the sequoia is only as strong as its roots. You — and me, and everyone — is connected, breathing in that pine-scented air, bathing in that warm sunlight.

    Related Article: 7 Adaptogens For Stress and Anxiety To Try ASAP