We can't pick the genes we're born with.
We can't turn back the clock and knock out the flu our mother had while pregnant with us.
The traumatic experiences or exposure to chemicals, while our brain was developing, is written in the past.
That doesn't mean we can't change the effects of some of this.
It's called neurogenesis.
Simply put, it's the ability to build new brain tissue and maybe, more importantly, new brain connections.
Pathways. Circuits if you will.
The brain has an amazing ability to not only learn but unlearn memories (both factual and emotional), habits, and even ways of processing what we feel and perceive.
This important across every aspect of our mental life but especially powerful for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and a host of other issues.
We'll focus on anxiety for this article.
Think of general anxiety disorder where the response appears to be "hard-wired" or system.
Let's see if we can rewire that circuit.
This speaks to long term benefits for anxiety...not just the one-off masking of it handed out by prescription in the millions with a risk of addiction (see CBD versus benzos here).
Our goal is simple:
What does research show for ways to alter our brain's anxiety circuit in a positive way?
After reading dozens of NIH studies on the matter, three different mechanisms appear to generate real change.
Most importantly, if we combine the three, a powerful new tool might be available for people for anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attack, and a range of issues.
Sure...decision making, impulsivity, addiction, and almost every aspect of what we might call "common sense" relies on these same brain areas and pathways.
That's just a bonus.
Let's first see if we can reduce the anxiety, please.
We're going to look at the following based on research:
- What can cause brain damage or structural changes that lead to anxiety
- What is neurogenesis as it pertains to anxiety
- What areas of the brain are showing promise for neurogenesis with anxiety
- Does CBD help with neurogenesis for anxiety
- Does Medication help with neurogenesis for anxiety
- Does Exercise help with neurogenesis for anxiety
- How to use CBD, meditation, and exercise for brain repair of the anxiety circuit
- How much CBD, meditation, and exercise for brain repair
- Best type of CBD, meditation, and exercise for brain repair and anxiety
Lot's to cover...it is the brain after all.
What can cause brain damage or structural changes that lead to anxiety?
Before we jump into the repair side...what's causing the damage?
There's a host of things that can go wrong and many shades of gray.
We'll hit the big-ticket items:
- Genetic expression
- Brain trauma
- Infection during key periods of brain development
- Exposure to chemicals during brain development or chronically
- Chronic THC exposure or small exposure during adolescents
- Sleep deprivation
- Chronic stress or poor stress response
- Drug and alcohol use
That's just a few but the brain is incredibly influenced by the environment.
Everything you eat or come in contact with can impact this circuit.
The gut bacteria alone are altered by foods and chemicals and they directly synthesize GABA, THE lever for anxiety in the brain.
Some of these, we can control. Others are written in the past or in our genes.
There's an interesting list of unexpected causes of brain harm here:
Let's look at the key areas of the brain that are important for anxiety.
What brain areas are damaged for anxiety?
We'll quickly touch base on the following:
- Amygdala - emotional and fear center
- Hippocampus - watchdog and initiator of fear response (very important for neurogenesis)
- Prefrontal cortex - our rational brain that keeps a check on the amygdala
We'll also look at some key communication links between these areas (also very important for anxiety).
These areas can actually shrink in volume and/or connections from the various causes we listed above.
Less volume or connections and the finely tuned balance needed is disrupted.
- if the amygdala is too strong, anxiety can result.
- If the prefrontal cortex is too weak, anxiety can result
- If the hippocampus is harmed, it can't do its job of regulating anxiety responses
- If the connections between the different areas are faulty, anxiety can result
Let's look at the research to back this up.
What is neurogenesis as it pertains to anxiety
Literally, it means birth of neurons.
Scientists used to think we could only grow new neurons as babies (they do it quite prolifically).
This was rather depressing.
All the neurons we could ever have were locked in and only minor adjustments could be made.
It was all downhill from there!
Turns out that's not the case.
The brain can make new neurons and make new connections all the time.
This is the key to learning.
Interestingly, addiction is a form of "bad" learning with an additional chemical trick.
The chemicals are able to shut down the brain's ability to make new connections and neurons to lock in the behavior.
The term used is called plasticity. We think of plastic as being hard but the word means an ability to be molded and changed in shape.
After all, we can form plastic into any shape we want!
Additive drugs literally impair the plasticity of the brain so it's much harder to "unlearn" their use.
This isn't on purpose of course...just a function of their chemical structure on...neurogenesis!
That's why nicotine is very hard to stop and broccoli isn't!
What does this have to do with anxiety?
We thought you would never ask….let's look at the research now.
What areas of the brain are showing promise for neurogenesis with anxiety?
We'll really focus on the hippocampus since it's the site of new brain growth directly tied to anxiety and a host of mental health issues...
It's part of our old "reptilian" brain.
The hippocampus has many roles to play:
- Regulation of emotions (ding ding ding!!)
- Memory formation - especially long term formation (important)
- Spatial navigation - not very important to anxiety but interesting!
Maybe, more importantly, the hippocampus governs our HPA axis.
That's a lot easier to say than hypothalamus pituitary adrenal.
It's where hormones that govern stress meet the brain.
That feeling you have with anxiety??? It originates here.
New neurons on the hippocampus are key to regulating this system:
hippocampus provides negative control of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and DG neurogenesis regulates hippocampal regulation of the HPA axis
Let's translate because it's important.
The hippocampus has the job of turning off or down the stress response in the body.
Why do some people respond to a given issue with anxiety while others do not?
Individual stress response may partially hinge on the hippocampus.
There's interesting research on what happens when people have damage to the hippocampus.
It's important for aging as well:
MRI scans of human brains have found that the human hippocampus shrinks by around 13 percent between the ages of 30 and 80.
Think of the hippocampus as a seat of emotional memory.
In fact, key behaviors such as compassion for social pain in others originate here.
Basically, we use the hippocampus to pull up memories from our own experience in a similar situation from which we "empathize" what that would feel like.
That's your hippocampus (or at least part of it).
Social anxiety and teenage anxiety are key links here when this capacity comes online (teenage) or is over-expressed (social).
The hippocampus acts as a reference point for emotions including fear and anxiety.
Speaking of anxiety (our focus), researchers found a specific group of cells in the hippocampus that literally flips the anxiety response on and off:
the cells found in this study are the first known to represent the state of anxiety, regardless of the type of environment that provokes emotion.
Learn more about this in our THC or cannabis versus CBD for anxiety article.
THC has been shown to shrink hippocampus volume and connectivity.
The Hippocampus has been shown to directly affect anxiety behavior in animals:
Interestingly, the biggest class of anti-anxiety medications (now that the benzos are roiled in addiction fallout) are SSRI's.
SSRIs directly affect serotonin level which is a better lever for depression than for anxiety.
Why is it prescribed for anxiety?
It turns out that it's real value might be neurogenesis:
Increasing Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis is Sufficient to Reduce Anxiety and Depression-Like Behaviors.
Read this part below carefully:
We find no effects on baseline anxiety and depression-related behavior; however, we find that increasing adult neurogenesis is sufficient to reduce anxiety and depression-related behaviors in mice treated chronically with corticosterone (CORT), a mouse model of stress
This may be why SSRI's can take 2 weeks plus to have an impact. They actually increase anxiety and depression in the first two weeks.
It's a fascinating read.
See our article how SSRIs really work.
Keep in mind that many of the "assaults" we described above leave their mark specifically on the hippocampus.
The obvious and documented effect of chronic stress on the hippocampus is an example:
Structurally, human and animal studies have shown that stress changes neuronal morphology, suppresses neuronal proliferation, and reduces hippocampal volume.
Don't get us started on THC's effect on the hippocampus.
Check out our THC versus CBD for anxiety article to learn all about this effect.
Anxiety itself is very destructive to the hippocampus and other brain areas tied to the circuit.
That's a good introduction to the Amygdala and prefrontal cortex, key players in the anxiety "circuit".
As research found:
Chronic stress exposure similarly alters fear neurocircuitry by enhancing amygdalar functioning while causing structural degeneration in the PFC and hippocampus thereby inhibiting PFC/hippocampus control over the stress response
PFC is short for prefrontal cortex, our rational rein on the fear center (Amygdala).
It's all right there!
Remodeling of the brain itself!
Interestingly, they bring up the same note that SSRIs might actually have their benefit through neurogenesis which speaks to the power of serotonin.
In our Tryptophan, Serotonin, and anxiety article, we discuss how healthy subjects do not develop depression or anxiety when serotonin and tryptophan are depleted.
That's not SSRI's mechanism.
And where does that happen?
The Effect of Serotonin-Targeting Antidepressants on Neurogenesis and Neuronal Maturation of the Hippocampus Mediated via 5-HT1A and 5-HT4 Receptors
So....neurogenesis in the hippocampus is key to our stress response, anxiety circuit, and a host of other key attributes.
We have damage at the hands of age, inflammation, infection, genes, and trauma.
That's very interesting but very depressing.
What can we do about it?
This is where we get so excited.
In all our research (dozens of NIH studies), there are three things shown to spur neurogenesis in the hippocampus outright:
- Mindful meditation
Let's check them out.
Does CBD help with neurogenesis for anxiety
CBD is a safe and non-psychoactive chemical found in the cannabis plant.
Learn all about what exactly CBD is here.
It's been shown that CBD has powerful benefits for anxiety in general.
We'll leave that reading to later….we want to focus on the neurogenesis aspect since we've seen above that it directly impacts anxiety.
We'll start with the headline level:
CBD induced a substantial increase in net neurogenesis by a CB1 receptor-dependent mechanism
This is equally important for anxiety of depression plus a host of other issues.
CB1 is the cannabinoid receptors found mainly in the brain.
Why does this matter for anxiety?
Increases hippocampal NPC proliferation via CB1 receptors, which may underlie the anxiolytic effect of CBD in chronically stressed animals
"Anxiolytic" just means anti-anxiety.
The "chronically stressed" aspect is important. Basically, long-term stress damages the brain.
Check our CBD, stress, and anxiety article...it's fascinating.
Stress boosts glutamate which eats up GABA.
How does CBD affect this?
Let's introduce two key players.
- Serotonin (already shown above to stimulate neurogenesis via the SSRI medications)
- BDNF - the lead player in neurogenesis
Serotonin is a workhorse in the brain. Many hats are worn.
One of its many jobs deals with the neurogenesis process.
Seven days of treatment with CBD reduced mechanical allodynia, decreased anxiety-like behavior, and normalized 5-HT activity.
5-HT is the serotonin pathway.
Our favorite part is "normalized".
The SSRI's used for anxiety will boost serotonin levels regardless of where they're at.
You can't really test for serotonin levels.
The list of nasty side effects is as varied as they are serious.
CBD boosts the cannabinoid system which is tasked with balancing serotonin.
As for neurogenesis...our topic…
Serotonin is a crucial monoamine in regulating adult hippocampal neurogenesis.
Learn all about CBD and serotonin here.
What about BDNF?
Cannabidiol Induces Rapid and Sustained Antidepressant-Like Effects Through Increased BDNF Signaling and Synaptogenesis in the Prefrontal Cortex.
Synaptogenesis is just a cool way to say that the brain is learning new tricks...building new pathways.
The prefrontal cortex is part of our anxiety circuit (the rational brain that tells the amygdala to calm down).
Of course, the hippocampus was also in play:
The acute antidepressant effects (30 min) were associated with increased expression of synaptophysin and PSD95 in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and elevated BDNF levels in both mPFC and hippocampus (HPC)
It goes beyond that though.
Remember all those various slights to our anxiety pathway...injuries, illness, and traumas?
Glucocorticoids (GCs) influence neuronal development and functions, as well as BDNF.
Glucocorticoids are stress chemicals. Chronically, they damage this BDNF pathway and consequently, our brain's ability to replenish key neurons.
This can lead to anxiety, depression, autism, and a host of different issues.
Check out inflammation, CBD, and anxiety for more detail here.
reduced levels in both BDNF expression and hippocampal neurogenesis occurs along with depressive behaviors, suggesting that a changed status of the BDNF/TrkB system and reduced neurogenesis are associated with depressive symptoms.
So CBD is part of our arsenal in repairing the brain for anxiety (and in general).
Does Meditation help with neurogenesis for anxiety?
In our 100's of hours of research, we were surprised when we came across multiple studies on mindful meditation and brain plasticity and mass across a range of areas.
Specifically, we were looking at how THC negatively impacts a key communication link in the brain which affects anxiety.
The uncinate fasciculus. (say that 5 times fast).
So-called "white matter", this brain area connects the prefrontal cortex with the amygdala (THE anxiety circuit essentially).
THC has been shown to shrink volume in this area if used chronically or when a person is in adolescents (see teenage anxiety and CBD).
Can we reverse or protect against this?
CBD had effects there as well via an interesting mechanism (see here) but mindful meditation popped up.
In a big way!
The present study revealed a significant increase in fractional anisotropy in the right UNC following MBSR, and no significant change in the control group.
To translate, the researchers found an increased mass in this particular link after mindful meditation.
It corresponded with reduced stress and anxiety responses.
That's one area.
This study went even further and found:
Regions within the brainstem were found to increase in gray matter concentration over the eight weeks. These regions appear to include the area of the locus coeruleus, nucleus raphe pontis, pontine tegmentum, and the sensory trigeminal nucleus
Why does this matter for anxiety?
Considerable evidence exists that the neurons of this system are important in a variety of cognitive, affective, and other behavioral functions, as well as associated clinical dysfunctions (e.g., depression, anxiety, sleep, and circadian disorders; for discussion, see (Aston-Jones, 2002). It is also one of the primary sites for the mediation of the stress response as well as a site of action of antidepressant drugs
Just an FYI, the "raphe" area is where serotonin is made!
Did you also catch that last part about antidepressant drugs? (hint hint neurogenesis may be the benefit there).
It's a very interesting review of many different studies that all point to some powerful neurogenesis effects of mindful meditation and a resulting reduction in anxiety.
One example out of many:
Seventy-eight percent of treated participants no longer met criteria for GAD and 77% achieved high end-state functioning at post-treatment assessment; these proportions stayed constant or increased over time.
GAD is a general anxiety disorder which speaks to a systemic root (from either injury, brain development or function).
The fact that mindful meditation has such a significant impact on the root causes points to brain plasticity at its core.
We're not just jacking up GABA levels like the benzos do (see CBD and benzos).
What about the amygdala...our fear area which is overactive in anxiety?
MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink.
Remember that the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are in an adversarial role when it comes to anxiety….really two separate brains in away.
What happens with the prefrontal cortex?
As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher-order brain functions such as awareness, concentration, and decision-making – becomes thicker.
The knock-on effect then trickles down the stress response system:
But we do see a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation. Markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol
Remember that it was stress chemicals that eat up the hippocampus and thicken the amygdala, to begin with!
So let's put a very powerful check by mindful meditation for neurogenesis and anxiety in general.
The final piece...exercise.
Does Exercise help with neurogenesis for anxiety
The third powerful lever for neurogenesis is exercise.
Remember BDNF above with CBD?
Just a refresher:
As a whole, the neurotrophin family polypeptides are vital to the regulation of the neural processes in neurogenesis, such as proliferation, differentiation, maturation, and plasticity
BDNF is a key player in this family.
So, what does that have to do with exercise?
Within this family, BDNF exhibits the highest degree of expression in the brain and is primarily synthesized there during exercise
And what part of the brain is involved:
aerobic exercise in humans increases BDNF expression by regulating BDNF gene expression in the hippocampus
There's the hippocampus. Goodness.
See the article on CBD and the hippocampus
If you have learned anything from above, the long term effects on anxiety are intimately tied to neurogenesis and the hippocampus is the usual suspect.
Are the benefits of anxiety tied to exercise based on some other mechanism in the body or brain?
Lower inflammation? Higher neurotransmitter levels? Improved blood flow?
All positives for anxiety and mental well-being after all.
In a pretty interesting experiment, they narrowed down how running exercise caused effects on anxiety in mice from running to this whole neurogenesis pathway.
They took two groups of mice.
One had a key gene for neurogenesis knocked out. The other group did not.
Both groups had similar exercise (running) regiments for four weeks and were then subjected to anxiety creating situations (for mice anyway).
The group with the gene knock out (no neurogenesis) exhibited no or reduced change in behavior in the anxiety from the exercise
The control group (which showed neurogenesis) had an altered anxiety behavior after the exercise.
That's mice...what about people?
Let's go right to the heart of it:
That is, the aerobic exercise group demonstrated an increase in the volume of the left and right hippocampus by 2.12% and 1.97%, respectively, over the 1-y period, whereas the stretching control group displayed a 1.40% and 1.43% decline over this same interval
This was in a group of older participants.
Did you catch that last part?
The people who did not exercise saw their hippocampus shrink by almost 1.5%.
In a year!
Over a decade, that's a 15% reduction in your memory and your ability to keep stress systems (HPA) under check.
This is amazing.
Exercise went the other way...INCREASING volume by approximately 2%.
That's almost a 4% swing in 1 year's time.
We're only looking at one brain area but a key one for anxiety and general mental health.
So look...exercise is a must. Not an option.
So how can we use three tools to repair and grow healthy brain mass?
How to use CBD, meditation, and exercise for brain repair of the anxiety circuit
There's no reason to think that the three can't work together and even boost the effects of each other.
If CBD spurs neuroplasticity, then mindful meditation (or CBT - cognitive behavioral therapy) should be magnified.
Think of it as a turbo boost.
Combining CBD, Mindful Meditation, and Exercise is a great roadmap for neurogenesis and its effects.
Here's a general roadmap:
- CBD oil (see below for dosage)
- Mindful Meditation (try Calm app as a great introduction)
- Exercise - aerobic exercise is best with medium intensity
Remember that the results of SSRI's for anxiety and depression may be solely due to this neurogenesis effect (via the serotonin pathway).
So...how much is best for neurogenesis and it's effect on anxiety and depression?
How much CBD, meditation, and exercise for brain repair
How much CBD for neurogenesis:
Research is showing we don't want to go higher than 300 mg for the neurogenesis effect.
Anti-anxiety effects are still present above that range but the neurogenesis long term effect starts to go down after 300 mg per day.
For that reason, wellness dosages start at around 30-50 mg and our max level might be around 300 mg
How much mindful meditation and neurogenesis
The Calm app has a daily calm at 10 minutes which is a great place to start.
The studies were generally between 10 - 30 minutes per day.
There's a new device called Muse which is more guided. We'll test it to see how it works shortly.
Do what you can...its about doing it every day!
How much exercise for neurogenesis
The recommended level is 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily.
So here's the ideal daily level:
- 30-300 mg of CBD (depending on anxiety level)
- 10-30 minutes of mindful meditation (Yoga will suffice)
- 20-30 minutes of exercise
Of course, every day is different. Don't beat yourself up.
Just know that it's a marathon, not a sprint.
We're building new brain!
Finally, what's the best type for each.
Best type of CBD, meditation, and exercise for brain repair and anxiety
We developed IndigoNaturals based on research (hopefully evident from this article and many more).
It's the cleanest CBD for people with histamine issues (roughly 40-60% of the population):
- Organically grown in the US
- 3rd party tested
- Free of THC
- Free of Pesticides
- Free of Heavy Metals
- Free of Bacteria
- Free of Mold
- 4-5 cents per mg of CBD (best value on the market)
Check our CBD and anxiety page to see how serious we are about this.
As for meditation, try the Calm app if you're new to it.
There are others and they're probably fine but Calm will be a game-changer in our book.
As for exercise, whatever you like doing and will continue doing.
Swimming is outstanding versus other exercises but do what you enjoy.
These three components have the capacity to actually change your brain structure to better handle stress, inflammation, and damage.
This might be the greatest gift you can give yourself.
Master overview of CBD and anxiety pathways to look at various aspects we can directly affect.
Links to CBD and anxiety research with dozens of anxiety-specific topics.
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.