Don't Worry, Be Happy: Endocannabinoids and Cannabis at the Intersection of Stress and Reward

Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol. 2017 Jan 6;57:285-308. doi: 10.1146/annurev-pharmtox-010716-104615. Epub 2016 Sep 2.


Cannabis enables and enhances the subjective sense of well-being by stimulating the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which plays a key role in modulating the response to stress, reward, and their interactions. However, over time, repeated activation of the ECS by cannabis can trigger neuroadaptations that may impair the sensitivity to stress and reward. This effect, in vulnerable individuals, can lead to addiction and other adverse consequences. The recent shift toward legalization of medical or recreational cannabis has renewed interest in investigating the physiological role of the ECS as well as the potential health effects, both adverse and beneficial, of cannabis. Here we review our current understanding of the ECS and its complex physiological roles. We discuss the implications of this understanding vis-á-vis the ECS's modulation of stress and reward and its relevance to mental disorders in which these processes are disrupted (i.e., addiction, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia), along with the therapeutic potential of strategies to manipulate the ECS for these conditions.

Keywords: THC; cannabis; endocannabinoids; marijuana; reward; stress.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Cannabis*
  • Endocannabinoids / metabolism*
  • Happiness*
  • Humans
  • Medical Marijuana / administration & dosage
  • Medical Marijuana / metabolism*
  • Mental Disorders / drug therapy
  • Mental Disorders / metabolism
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / agonists
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / metabolism
  • Reward*
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / drug therapy
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*


  • Endocannabinoids
  • Medical Marijuana
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1