Stress. It’s a ubiquitous part of modern existence. It’s almost as if you’re no one unless you’re experiencing off the chart levels of stress in your life. And yet, stress is slowly killing us. It’s the common factor silently running through many life limiting illnesses. Everything from heart disease, depression, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer are thought to have chronic stress at their root. But can CBD, a compound found in cannabis help?
Stress and Cannabis
Stress is one of the reasons many people give for using cannabis, stating that the plant helps them relax at the end of a long day, aids sleep in cases of insomnia, and reduces anxiety levels. Not only that, a recent study found that regular cannabis users have a lower stress response when exposed to stressful stimulation compared to people who don’t consume cannabis, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is increasingly being recognised as a therapeutic target for medical cannabis.
The reason cannabis and stress reduction go hand in hand becomes obvious when we consider the integral relationship between the plant’s active components and the body’s own endocannabinoid system (ECS). We, alongside all other vertebrates, have a vast system of special cannabinoid receptors and neurotransmitters called endocannabinoids. Together they act as a homeostatic regulator, with a modus operandi of bringing balance and protection to all systems in our organism. If too much or too little activity is detected, the endocannabinoid system kicks in to bring it back into harmony again.
The system can also be stimulated by compounds in the cannabis plant. THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid elicits a direct effect by binding to ECS receptors, while the second most abundant cannabinoid, CBD is thought to tonify the ECS by indirectly increasing levels of the body’s own endocannabinoid, anandamide.
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The Endocannabinoid System and Stress
There aren’t many biological functions in the body that aren’t modulated by the endocannabinoid system, but one that stands out in importance is its role in regulating stress.
Endocannabinoid signalling is found throughout the key areas related to stress, in particular the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis which is responsible for controlling cortisol and other stress hormones. Endocannabinoid receptors have also been discovered in the amygdala, part of the limbic system crucially involved in emotions and memory, in particular fear.
Scientists suggest a functioning endocannabinoid system in the HPA axis and amygdala allows the body to cope with high stress levels, while disrupted ECS signalling can cause an inability to adapt to chronic stress.
Researchers at the Vanderbilt University of Medicine have also observed how one endocannabinoid in particular, 2-AG, play a key role in stress resilience. They found that mice whose amygdalas were supplemented with 2-AG showed a higher level of stress resistance and the opposite effect was noted on mice who were 2-AG deficient. They concluded “deficiencies in natural cannabinoids could result in a predisposition to developing PTSD and depression. Boosting this signalling system could represent a new treatment approach for these stress-linked disorders.”
One way to boost endocannabinoid signalling is to take phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant. Most people who use cannabis to help cope with stress are probably consuming strains containing THC, the psychoactive compound in the plant. This psychoactivity occurs because of THC’s binding affinity with the CB1 receptors, found mostly in the brain and central nervous system. In small doses, THC has been found to have a calming, anti-anxiety effect. But when higher amounts are consumed, THC dominant strains can do just the opposite, actually making anxiety worse.
But What About CBD?
Because CBD doesn’t have a binding affinity with CB1 receptors, it isn’t thought to affect endocannabinoid signalling in the same manner as THC. In fact studies suggest CBD actually counteracts its psychoactive effect. However, by inhibiting the production of FAAH, the enzyme responsible for breaking down the endocannabinoid anandamide, CBD is believed to indirectly tonify the ECS, improving our ability to cope with stress.
CBD is also a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, which is a key weapon for countering the damaging effects of stress, such as heart disease.
In a study published this year, scientists at Harvard University discovered a strong link between an overactivated amygdala caused by stress, artery inflammation, and a higher risk of heart attack. With repeated stress, our bone marrow produces extra white blood cells, which in turn triggers inflammation and the build up of artery clogging plaque. Could it be then that CBD’s anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory nature might provide a multi-pronged approach for both preventing and mitigating the damage caused by stress?
CBD Lowers Blood Pressure
But what happens if chronic stress and inflammation have already ganged up on our arteries producing atherosclerosis – a condition in which they harden and narrow? High blood pressure tends to be the consequence, and is a classic symptom of chronic stress. Again, CBD comes to the fore as a natural way to lower our blood pressure.
At the recent International Cannabinoid Research Society Symposium in Montreal, Nottingham University Associate Professor Saoirse O’Sullivan presented her paper outlining how a single dose of CBD can reduce blood pressure in humans. Nine healthy volunteers were given 600mg of CBD in a randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover study. She found that administering CBD “reduces resting BP (blood pressure) and the BP increase to stress in humans, associated with increased HR (heart rate).” O’Sullivan postulates that this reduction in blood pressure could be secondary to CBD’s anti-anxiety effect and suggests CBD has an inhibitory effect on the part of nervous system that stimulates the fight or flight response, “thereby preventing an increase in blood pressure and cardiac output.”
This is the first study of its kind showing that CBD directly lowers blood pressure in human subjects, which will undoubtedly herald further research into CBD as a therapeutic target for heart disease.
So, it seems then that CBD has much potential to calm the choppy waters of our stressed out lives, both as a preventative measure and to counter the effects that long term stress inflicts on our bodies and minds.