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Hemp for Health: The ECS and Stress

The Magazine: Hemp for Health: The ECS and Stress

Feeling stressed? You’re not alone. In fact, according to Gallup, more Americans were stressed, angry and worried in 2018 than they’ve been in at least a decade. When asked about their feelings the previous day, the majority of Americans (55%) said they had experienced stress “during a lot of the day” – making us one of the most stressed countries in the world. And not by a little. We beat the global average (35%) by a full 20 percentage points.

Stress isn’t always bad. In small bursts it helps you perform under pressure, keeping you alert, focused, and energetic. It’s what hones your concentration during intense competition, keeps you sharp during a job interview, or gives you the stamina and will to pull an all-nighter before a big test. In true “fight or flight” emergencies, stress is a survival mechanism—compelling you to hit the brakes to avoid a car accident, for example, or giving you a surge of extra strength to protect yourself if attacked.

But chronic stress is another story entirely. If you’re typically functioning in this heightened state of emergency (at least that’s how your body perceives it, whether it’s a real emergency or not), stress stops being helpful and starts causing harm. And the more your emergency stress system is mobilized, the easier it becomes to trigger and the harder it becomes to shut off – creating a snowball effect of damage to your health and quality of life.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it becomes the status quo, especially since we live in a “Cult of Busy” (that doesn’t include things like “busy” playing with your kids or “busy” enjoying life). We almost mindlessly accept career “busy” and kids in extracurricular activities “busy” as normal – or even a sign of success. And on the flip side of the coin, admitting you’re over-stressed is somehow admitting weakness. Someone, somewhere has to deal with much more than me, so who am I to complain?

You’ve probably experienced the headaches and tight muscles that can happen as a result of stress, but so much more is happening inside. The fact is: Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive system, increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, stroke and heart attack, and speed up the process of aging. It can even rewire the neural circuitry in your brain, making you more susceptible to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

If you frequently feel frazzled and overwhelmed, consider this your wake-up call. It’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. And tapping into the power of your endocannabinoid system can help.

Your Endocannabinoid System (ECS) and Stress

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is your internal superhero. It’s a relatively recently discovered family of molecules, receptors, and enzymes now known as the “master regulator” of the body – woven throughout the central nervous system and peripheral tissues, maintaining homeostasis (balance) across all of our physiological processes. Not surprisingly given its ubiquity, it plays a vital regulatory role in the body’s stress response mechanisms and it is intimately connected with the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, where the stress response begins.

The HPA axis is a grouping of responses to stress coordinated by the brain and the pituitary and adrenal glands. The hypothalamus (one of the brain’s main control centers) kicks in first releasing a compound called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). The CRF heads to the pituitary gland (often referred to as the “master gland”), where it triggers the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH is pumped into the bloodstream and causes the adrenal gland to release the stress hormones, particularly cortisol. Cortisol increases the availability of the body's fuel supply (carbohydrate, fat, and glucose), which is necessary for responding to stress – heightening your focus and functioning.

As mentioned above, with chronic stress this release of hormones becomes ever easier to trigger and ever harder to turn off – but a healthily functioning endocannabinoid system works to prevent this. Indeed, it appears to be a key factor in maintaining internal balance.


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Tucked deep inside the nuclei of the hypothalamus, and in the amygdala and beyond, are endocannabinoid system communication points – regulating synaptic release of both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that allow our neurons to “talk” to one another). Among other functions scientists are still uncovering, the endocannabinoid signaling serves to maintain HPA-axis homeostasis as it is involved in both activating and terminating the HPA-axis response to both acute and chronic stress. So, essentially the HPA-axis regulates your body’s stress response, but the endocannabinoid system regulates the HPA-axis. It’s a simple (actually quite complex) chain of command.

Do phytocannabinoids found in hemp impact your body’s reaction to stress?

Endocannabinoid receptors embedded in cell membranes produce a wide variety of reactions when stimulated by cannabinoids, which can be endogenous (via our body, which produces naturally occurring endocannabinoids) or exogenous (via the cannabis plant, which produces phytocannabinoids).

Preliminary studies are demonstrating the efficacy of phytocannabinoids, specifically CBD, for various stress-related issues. Here’s a small snapshot of some of the emerging science:

  • At least two studies using a simulated public speaking test to induce stress have found that a dose of CBD reduced symptoms of self-rated stress.
  • A study using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examined changes in regional blood flow and neural correlates of brain activity in response to CBD administration. Results were consistent with effects expected with the alleviation of stress and irritability.
  • In a small study examining neurophysiological reactions to fearful faces, CBD caused a disruption of prefrontal-subcortical connectivity in test subjects demonstrating calming properties.
  • In a 2015 review of evidence from preclinical, human experimental, clinical, and epidemiological studies, researchers found CBD could play a role in preventing some long-term impacts of stress, as well as having “considerable potential” for application with other stress-related issues.

Clearly, there is much to be learned, but the growing body of science is revealing that supplementing your body’s endocannabinoid system with phytocannabinoids found in hemp (particularly CBD) may play an important role in supporting your body’s stress response system.

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