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Can Your Body's Cannabinoids Extinguish Traumatic Memories?

New research shows how self-produced versions of chemicals that are found in cannabis may reduce anxiety and diminish traumatic memories.

New research puts the "bliss molecule" anandamide in the spotlight. An international team of researchers led by Mario van der Stelt of Leiden University in the Netherlands recently identified how anandamide modulates emotional behavior in mice. This peer-reviewed paper (Mock et al., 2020) was published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology on May 11.

Although this research in mice shows promise, more clinical research is needed to fully understand if and how N-acylethanolamines (NAEs)—which include the endocannabinoid called anandamide—might help humans minimize the impact of traumatic memories.

That being said, Van der Stelt's groundbreaking research on NAE biosynthesis in the brain and how anandamide affects emotional behavior in mice builds on a wealth of evidence-based research (discussed below). His team's latest anandamide findings (2020) could lead to new pharmaceutical treatments for generalized anxiety disorder, phobia-related disorders, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It is a starting point for the development of new medicines, Van der Stelt said in a news release. "[We] have now shown that anandamide is responsible for forgetting anxieties, pharmaceutical companies can focus on a new target. And you then have two options: looking for molecules that stimulate the production of anandamide or looking for molecules that reduce its degradation."

How Can Humans Stimulate the Production of Our Brain's Own "Cannabis" Without Drugs?

Anandamide is an endocannabinoid (a self-made version of chemicals that are also found in cannabis) that gets its name from the Sanskrit word ānanda, which means bliss or happiness. In the Veda scriptures of Hinduism, ānanda refers to a state of rapture that can accompany reincarnation's rebirth cycles. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell discusses the archetypal symbolism of ananda in the context of his famous maxim, "Follow your bliss."

In the everyday life of many recreational joggers, anandamide works with endorphins and other neurotransmitters to create a "runner's high." In the past two decades, countless studies have shown that vigorous aerobic exercise stimulates the production of endocannabinoids in the brain.

In August 2002, an article in Scientific American, "Cannabis-like Brain Chemical Blocks Out Bad Memories," by Sarah Graham, reported on groundbreaking endocannabinoid research (Marsicano et al., 2002) from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Germany. Giovanni Marsicano's landmark paper, "The Endogenous Cannabinoid System Controls Extinction of Aversive Memories," was published in the journal Nature.

Graham sums up the findings of this pioneering endocannabinoid study in her article:

"[The researchers] trained mice to associate a tone with receiving a shock. Once the actual shock was removed, normal mice eventually forgot their previous experience and came to realize that they need not be afraid of the sound anymore. Mice engineered to lack receptors for cannabinoid brain chemicals, in contrast, continued to fear the tones, suggesting that they were unable to put the negative experiences out of their minds."

In 2004, a review paper (Dietrich & McDaniel, 2004) published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine provided a comprehensive overview of the rapidly emerging 21st-century interest in a possible link between endocannabinoids and aerobic exercise. As the authors explain:

"The intense psychological experiences elicited by the activation of the endocannabinoid receptors are strikingly similar to the experience of the runner's high. To compare, the mental changes that accompany long distance running include analgesia, sedation (post-exercise calm or glow), a reduction in anxiety, euphoria, and difficulties in estimating the passage of time."

The title of my first book, The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (2007), was inspired by the link between runner's high and "the bliss molecule" (anandamide). In the introduction, I describe coming up with the title while training for my umpteenth Ironman Triathlon in Central Park:

"Anandamide is called 'the bliss molecule' by neuroscientists and is the key to feeling good when we sweat. One day, I was biking along, when the idea of sweat and anandamide suddenly came together in the words 'sweat and the biology of bliss.' Sweat on the outside represents anandamide and other brain chemicals pumping on the inside. All I picture now when I see people breaking a sweat is joie de vivre radiating from their bodies and blissful endocannabinoids pumping inside their brains symbolized by sweat streaming from their skin."

I started jogging in the summer of 1983; I was 17. Becoming a "runner" rewired my adolescent brain to be less anxious and kept my depressive symptoms at bay. Anecdotally, I know that regular aerobic workouts can bolster a "Bring it on! I got this" mindset and reduce the sting of bad memories. (See "8 Research-Based Reasons I Rose-Tint Some Childhood Memories")

Source: donskarpo/Shutterstock

Before the exercise-induced metamorphoses I experienced in the summer of 1983, I'd spent a few semesters suffering from a crippling anxiety disorder as a gay teen who found myself trapped at a homophobic boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut. My dean was a varsity football coach and projected a mean-spirited drill sergeant aura. He publicly humiliated me for being a "sissy."

At the time, he succeeded in making me feel like a stereotypical 98-pound weakling and encoded lots of fear-based memories associated with sports. Nevertheless, in June 1983, I was inspired to lace up my sneakers and go for my first jog ever after seeing a matinee of Flashdance at a local cinema. That summer, I jogged for at least a half-hour every day of the week while blasting "Holiday" and "Flashdance...What a Feeling" on my Walkman.

From June to September 1983, I went from being a terrified teenager to being an ambitious go-getter who was eager to seize the day. Instead of appraising threats as a source of paralyzing fear that caused me to freeze in place, my brain seemed to reframe obstacles associated with adversity as something challenging that I could overcome. (See "Flip the Script: Turning Naysayer Put-Downs into Rocket Fuel")

Stimulating the production of more "bliss molecules" during vigorous cardio workouts didn't completely extinguish my traumatic memories. However, whatever endocannabinoid-driven changes occurred in my brain once I started working out regularly as a teenager significantly minimized the post-traumatic stress of being bullied in high school.

Someday, people of all ages may have access to pharmaceuticals that can stimulate the production of more anandamide on demand. In the meantime, if you want to self-produce more endocannabinoids in your brain, why not lace up your sneakers, crank up your favorite motivational playlist, and go for a jog?