Can CBD Help With Brain Zaps or Shocks?
It was one of the most frightening symptoms from my perimenopause hell (that story is here).
I would wake up in the middle of the night with a shock.
Call it a brain zap or whatever you like.
The net effect was being totally unsettled from the experience.
One, I started to wonder if I was having strokes or something worse.
Secondly, I was already in an anxious state already from perimenopause (see CBD and perimenopause anxiety) so every symptom bounced around an echo chamber of worse possible causes.
It turns out this can be a symptom and we can learn about the root cause from the other key driver...SSRI's and benzos.
We'll have to say hello to our old friend GABA.
We're going to cover these topics:
- What causes brain zaps or shocks
- Can perimenopause cause brain zaps or shocks
- SSRI or Benzo withdrawal and brain zaps
- Can CBD help with brain zaps
- How much CBD for brain zaps
- What's the best CBD for brain zaps
Let's get started.
What causes brain zaps or shocks
Let's introduce you to your gas and brake pedal in the brain.
Glutamate and GABA respectively.
These are two of the most active and widely present neurotransmitters in the brain and nervous system.
We have a delicate balance between the two and occasionally, one needs to be in charge.
- GABA is critical for sleep as an example
- Glutamate is critical for alertness and action
That shows their effects at a macro level (how we feel).
As we drill down, GABA is the key neurotransmitter to calm neuronal activity.
Now we're getting somewhere.
In fact, lower or impaired GABA function is tied to seizures.
Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), the principal inhibitory neurotransmitter in the cerebral cortex, maintains the inhibitory tone that counterbalances neuronal excitation. When this balance is perturbed, seizures may ensue.
Researchers are pointing to brain zaps or shocks as being discount versions of seizures in very localized areas.
They are generally not dangerous albeit scary as all get out. We'll look at that piece below.
Seizures can cause damage while brain shocks are more in line with discomfort.
The research on benzo and SSRI withdrawal (as well as amphetamine (ADD meds and ecstasy) points to "flux" in GABA levels relative to glutamate as the driver of brain zaps.
We'll explain why below and this really points to ways we can address it.
A quick detour which helps tease out the deeper root of the issue... why would these accompany perimenopause?
What's the connection there?
Can perimenopause cause brain zaps or shocks
The big player in perimenopause (especially when bad) is a flux in estrogen.
Check out our perimenopause versus menopause article.
Starting a few years before the actual drop in estradiol (E2 - our primary estrogen) can go haywire with spikes and drops across the board.
Why would this matter for our glutamate and GABA balance?
Estrogen's just for making babies, right??
Check out or guide to estradiol here to see just how intricately tuned into almost every system in our body.
Including our nervous system.
Just a summary:
Estrogen is a master regulator that functions through a network of estrogen receptors to ensure that the brain effectively responds at rapid, intermediate and long timescales to regulate energy metabolism in the brain via coordinated signaling and transcriptional pathways.
Master regulator. Sounds important.
Let's look directly at estradiol or progesterone and this balancing act.
Estrogen and GABA Glutamate balance
Just head's up for men...testosterone is converted into estrogen in the brain by aromatase which is heavily present in the male brain. Go figure.
Estrogen has been shown to suppress GABA release which makes it excitatory in nature.
This fits with it's "pro-growth" bent.
The opposite is true for progesterone!
Whereas estrogen seems to suppress GABA inhibitory input (Murphy et al., 1998a), progesterone and its neuroactive metabolites (allopregnanolone, pregnanolone) seem to facilitate GABAergic transmission through their action at GABAA receptors.
So...for the lucky 25% of women who have debilitating perimenopause, what would happen with a spike in estrogen and a lower level in progesterone?
You might just see a drop in GABA as a result!
During perimenopause, it's not uncommon to have a bout of crying or anger (see CBD and perimenopause mood) that lasts minutes or hours and then just vanishes.
Again, really check out the estradiol review or perimenopause versus menopause.
You're not alone. You're not crazy. Most importantly, you're not dying!!
What about the GABA nurturing hormone progesterone.
It's been dropping since your late 30's.
In fact, at age 40, it's at about 50% of your peak level.
We have a massive review on progesterone.
Check out our full pregnenolone review for its effect on progesterone and that powerful GABA nurturer, allopregnanolone mentioned above.
It's the star behind the new postpartum depression medication and you can supplement it right now.
Interestingly, estradiol is a big supporter of serotonin which we'll look at below with SSRIs and brain zaps.
The key point is this...our steroidal hormones are all over GABA/Glutamate levels.
So...brain zaps can definitely be in play if we're one of the lucky ladies (about 250,000 new ones each year) with extreme fluctuations.
Interestingly, the mainstream medical's approach for all these women adrift on the perimenopause sea is one of two things.
SSRI's and Benzos.
Let's go there now for brain zaps.
SSRI or Benzo withdrawal and brain zaps
As we mentioned above, withdrawal or missing doses for certain medications can cause brain zaps as well.
They have something in common.
GABA Glutamate balance.
Benzos and brain zaps
This one is pretty straight forward.
Benzos' directly drive up the level of GABA in the brain.
The problem with this approach is 2-fold.
They also pump up dopamine in the seat of addiction within our brain.
Secondly, the brain reacts to this overload of GABA by decreasing its natural level.
It's called normalization or tolerance and occurs with many drugs.
If you then stop benzos (they're only recommended for a few weeks to avoid addiction...the FDA warnings are well known), not only do you lose the boost to GABA you had from the med…
Your underlying GABA receptivity and level may be suppressed!
It's a perfect storm.
And with a storm, you can get lightning!
In the form of brain zaps.
This is just one more element that makes weaning off of benzos so difficult (see how I used CBD to get off of benzos here).
Another reason against the serotonin hypothesis is that brain zaps have been reported when people discontinue the use of other drugs, such as benzodiazepines—used for anxiety relief and muscle relaxation—as well as the ADHD medication Adderall (amphetamine salts) and the illegal party drug MDMA(ecstasy).
That last statement was to clarify that brain zaps are not solely due to serotonin levels but let's look at SSRIs as brain zaps are a known side effect of antidepressant withdrawal.
What's going on there if GABA is likely the key trigger?
Serotonin is the workhorse of messaging in the nervous system with its finger in many pies.
One of the big ones?
In fact, one particular receptor comes into focus...5HT1a (serotonin receptor):
Activity at this receptor site correlates with the increased activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the main brain-inhibiting neural activity and brain-calming activity.
The fact that the other known suspects all interact with GABA and GABA is key to seizures makes for a compelling case.
By the way, you won't be warned about this from the prescribing doctor and brain zaps generally fall under the heading of serotonin discontinuation syndrome.
Orwell would be proud (or frightened)!
Interestingly, the risk of brain zaps with SSRI's is not equal:
Venlafaxine and paroxetine were reported more frequently, and fluoxetine less frequently, in the sample compared to their frequency of prescription in clinical practice.
That's Effexor, Paxil, and Prozac respectively.
This is important because it matches how quickly the drugs drop off.
The shorter the half-life, the quicker the drop-off.
Brain zaps and a range of side effects result from a flux in serotonin.
The half-life of fluoxetine and its active metabolite norfluoxetine is respectively 2 to 4 days and 7 to 15 days, more extended than other SSRIs (approximately 1 day).
The downside is...the longer the half-life, the longer it takes to get out of your system if you're trying to stop.
Just a head's up...it can be dangerous to stop abruptly. Check out my article on how I used CBD to wean off of SSRIs.
A steep drop off means an abrupt change in GABA downstream.
So...are brain zaps or shocks dangerous?
Can brain zaps be dangerous
The medical literature generally points to brain zaps as not posing long term danger.
Of course, seizures can be and the pathways appear to be the same if not as severe.
Most people have experienced brain zaps just in the course of life, albeit infrequently.
Perimenopause and benzos/SSRI withdrawal are a special situation.
Withdrawal from some heart and BP medications can also display this side effect.
So….to the question at hand?
Can CBD help with brain zaps
Let's drill even further into how it might affect GABA pathways following withdrawal.
We won't even look at the dopamine addiction issue.
The brain is an amazing machine.
When it's bombarded by an outside boost to a naturally occurring substance (such as GABA), it tries to find balance by going the other way.
In the long term anyway.
This is the heart of normalization...needing more and more of a drug to get the same effect.
Or tolerance by another name.
The brain will typically do this by reducing the number of receptors or blunting their receptivity.
The exact mechanism of this is pretty well established with benzos:
Thus, a PLCδ/Ca2+/calcineurin signaling cascade converts the initial enhancement of GABAARs by benzodiazepines to a long-term downregulation of GABAergic synapses.
So...can CBD help "normalize" or bring balance back to this GABA system?
A study on CBD and autism (which may have an aspect of hyperexcitability in certain areas of the brain) were instructive:
CBD has multiple targets, but one aspect of its polypharmacy may be to help regulate excitatory glutamate (E) and inhibitory γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) (I) transmission, which may influence the activity of excitatory and inhibitory signaling pathways.
To translate...CBD balanced the interaction between GABA and glutamate!
Interestingly, it had a different response in neurotypicals versus participants with autism.
This speaks to an effect based on the current state of the person.
We see this across multiple pathways (the one on cancer and oxidation is fascinating - see CBD and cancer).
What about general support for GABA pathways?
First, we have seen how CBD supports GABA function:
The maximal level of enhancement seen with either CBD or 2-AG were on α2-containing GABAA receptor subtypes, with approximately a 4-fold enhancement of the GABA EC5 evoked current, more than twice the potentiation seen with other α-subunit receptor combinations.
A 4 fold enhancement. But we don't see the tolerance and rebound drop in GABA like with benzos.
Maybe most importantly…
The potency of CBD increased and efficacy preserved in binary α1/α2β2 receptors indicating that their effects do not involve the classic benzodiazepine site.
There's literally a site on the neuron for benzos!
Here's the critical piece.
If you take benzo's at an increasing dosage, here's the trajectory:
You can overdose on benzos with high enough levels. Same thing with SSRI's (it's called serotonin syndrome).
As for CBD, it doesn't have this escalating effect. Researchers have tested up to 1500 mg doses with little side effects.
It speaks to CBD's "feedback" effect in these systems.
It works backward as a constraint.
Remember how SSRI's impact that specific type of serotonin receptor which boosts GABA...5HTA1?
Look at CBD's effect:
CBD acts as an agonist at the human 5-HT1a receptor as demonstrated in two related approaches.
Agonist just means that it boosts activity….of the receptor!!
Not just increasing GABA availability like with benzos.
Remember that part of tolerance is that the receptors retreat and decrease activity with prolonged benzo activity (and by default, with SSRI's based on the similar brain zap side effect).
As for perimenopause, estradiol supported serotonin function and progesterone directly supported GABA.
Serotonin is all over GABA and Glutamate function with full details here:
What about CBD and serotonin?
Seven days of treatment with CBD reduced mechanical allodynia, decreased anxiety-like behavior, and normalized 5-HT activity.
5HT is serotonin.
"Normalized" might the most important word there.
Not increase like SSRI's but balance...when low. You see this throughout the research with words like normalize, modulate, and the like.
Serotonin is too powerful to move in one direction.
That study goes on to show the effects of this balancing:
Overall, repeated treatment with low-dose CBD induces analgesia predominantly through TRPV1 activation, reduces anxiety through 5-HT1A receptor activation, and rescues impaired 5-HT neurotransmission under neuropathic pain conditions.
"Rescues impaired 5HT". Again, 5HT is serotonin and imbalances there can have a slew of negative effects.
Withdrawal from the artificial boosting of serotonin by SSRI's is directly implicated in brain zaps.
This is very exciting and we look forward to directing studies (or any studies really) on CBD and brain zaps specifically.
One important note.
The SSRI's will use up an important liver pathway called P450.
This same pathway is used by CBD.
For that reason, I took them at separate times completely and was very slow and methodic about it.
Always work with a trusted naturopath to guide here and with hormone replacement therapy or with any supplement!
Some practical questions based on my experience and from our customers.
How much CBD for brain zaps
We don't have exact research.
The study on serotonin function balancing was based on low dose CBD.
A generally accepted beginning dosage is around 25-30 mg.
Everyone is different (weight, state of GABA or Serotonin function, inflammation, etc).
I went slow and gradually increased my CBD until I got to 150 mg twice a day.
Research on neurogenesis (building and repairing brain function) points to 300 mg/daily as the max level for this pathway.
Since we're talking about neurons (GABA or serotonin specific ones), neurogenesis would figure in here.
Again, I went very gradually as they use the same pathway in the liver.
There are some important considerations for the type of CBD.
What's the best CBD for brain zaps
We have some basic requirements of course to eliminate the junk on the market.
- Organically grown in the US at an FDA registered farm
- CO2 processed
- 3rd party tested
- No THC
- No Pesticides
- No Solvents
- No Heavy Metals
- No Bacteria
- No Mold
We test twice since our whole family uses IndigoNaturals CBD.
The important piece deals with the type of CBD.
Almost everyone on the market is pushing full-spectrum CBD.
The problem is that all the research is based on CBD by itself.
Until we see it in NIH studies, it's just marketing to us.
We base everything on research first!
That should be obvious if you've looked at any of our reviews.
Here's the deal...40-60% of the population has histamine or allergy issues.
This will peak for women especially as we get older.
The last thing you want is all the plant material in full spectrum to trigger histamine response.
Histamine is diametrically opposed to GABA.
In fact, it eats it up.
Notice how the key side effect of antihistamines is drowsiness?
There are probably a million women out there in perimenopause or later taking Tylenol PM for sleep.
CBD itself has powerful anti-histamine effects (see CBD and histamines for anxiety here).
We want to keep it really clean...CBD and MCT oil (coconut oil extract). Just two ingredients.
We based our entire oil line on this after having bad reactions from full-spectrum CBD brands.
Some of the biggest on the market.
Be well. Be informed. Let's take care of each other.
Always work with a doctor or naturopath with any supplement!
The information provided here is not intended to treat an illness or substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.