Stress is a complicated and natural human condition, and has been essential to the survival of the species. The human body has a complex network of systems in place to quickly adapt to an ever-changing environment. One of the key components of this is the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Here we will touch on the normal and abnormal physiological stress responses, discuss the role of the ECS on stress, and take a realistic perspective on cannabis consumption and how exogenous cannabinoids can both regulate and dysregulate this process.
Stress in the body
When most people think of stress they think of the fight or flight response, which is a constellation of symptoms like elevated heart rate, dilated pupils, and increased breathing. When this system is working properly it begins a cascade of reactions in the body. These physiologic reactions inside the body include changes in the chemical and hormone levels, primarily cortisol and adrenaline, which cascades down the line leading to increased and decreased tissue consumption of glucose and oxygen. The body works quickly to support the state of heightened stress, and then just as quickly returns the systems to a balance. At peak efficiency, these internal mechanisms are called homeostasis.
But given the intersection of physical and emotional stress, it’s easy for part of this stress response to be depleted and less responsive. And over time when not working properly makes it physically more difficult to handle internal and external stressors, and physiologically lessens the ability of the body to adapt and respond.
Given the increased availability and awareness of cannabis and cannabis-based medicine, there is a renewed interest in the use of cannabis to reduce stress However, with the intricate processes involved, and the many different compounds found in cannabis it is not always a black-and-white delineation. The relationship between the ECS and stress is far more complicated and requires further explanation and understanding.
The Role of the Endocannabinoid System
Since it was first discovered in the 1980s, the ECS is now known to play an integral role in the regulation and modulation of both the physical and emotional stress response. The primary mechanism of the stress response is the hypothalamic‐pituitary‐adrenal feedback loop, which depends largely on glucocorticoid receptors and G-protein coupled receptors (GPCR), especially cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1), all included in the ECS. Dysregulation in the ECS has been linked to multiple chronic conditions including chronic pain, emotional distress, neurodegenerative disorders, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Conversely, by targeting the ECS with exogenous cannabinoids there is promising data supporting the neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease.
Can Cannabis Reduce Stress?
Reactive Stress and Oxidation
When the inflammatory systems respond to stress or infection, the release of reactive oxygen species (ROS) leads to an imbalance of oxidants, known as an oxidative stress reaction. Imbalance in any part of this process can lead to dysfunction farther down the cascade, leading to the body’s inability to regulate its response to stress, and leading to an increased cycle of oxidation and inflammation.
Research has given us a large body of evidence for the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of cannabis, and extends beyond the better-known delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) compounds, and includes many of the common terpenes found in cannabis. Limitations exist however as most of the body of evidence showing its potent anti-inflammatory properties has been from laboratory and animal studies.
Physical and Emotional Stress
Cannabis has a long-standing reputation as a relaxation and stress reduction tool. There are multiple confirmatory studies on the “relaxation” effects of cannabis, including one that suggests mid-level use may improve quality of life scores in patients with chronic health conditions. What’s less understood are the long-term impacts of heavy cannabis use on stress responses. One study suggests that maladaptive cannabis use can increase anxiety and depressive symptoms, and another suggests it may be linked to long-term dependency.
What the Future Holds
What started as a very simple understanding of the ECS has now, through decades of research, confirmed that the role of the ECS is central to human stress regulation and dysregulation. The role of the ECS and cannabis in balancing oxidation, inflammation, and the stress feedback loop is leading to more targeted options in treating stress at multiple levels. By recognizing the early signs of dysfunction, in an increasingly stressful world, we may soon find we have better tools to rebalance and adapt.
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Disclaimer: This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or another medical professional.