Running from a predator and fighting to survive. Working hard to get that promotion at work. Being anxious about the uncertain future. All three situations have one thing in common, stress. Although it has very different results in every situation, stress response is passed on from our ancient ancestors. Being stressed can have a huge benefit for an individual or devastating consequences depending on the type and duration. However, there are ways to achieve stress relief and manage stress symptoms in an all natural way.
A large number of people worldwide use cannabis to cope with stress and anxiety. Before getting into details, we have to discuss where it comes from. As in many things in life, we inherited a large portion of our deeply routed nature from our ancestors. We can say that many of our behavioural patterns come from the hunter-gatherer stage of human development, where sole survival was the number one worry of every human being.
However, some of these patterns have not changed much to this day and can make our lives very difficult if we do not recognize them and act accordingly. In this article we will take a brief look at what stress is, where it comes from, what are stress symptoms, and how it can affect our body. Finally, we will also explain how cannabinoids, terpenes, and our endocannabinoid system can be the key to achieving stress relief.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT EVOLUTION
The expression “fight-or-flight” refers to the choices our ancient ancestors had when faced with danger in the predatorial environment. They had to either fight or flee from danger. In both cases psychological and physiological response to stress prepares our body to react to the danger.
The first one to describe this response was American physiologist Walter Cannon in the 1920s. He realised the chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body helped to mobilise the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances. Today the fight or flight response is recognized as part of the first stage of Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome, a theory describing the stress response.
Fight or Flight Response
As a result of acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated by the sudden release of hormones. This includes adrenocorticotropic hormone and corticotropin releasing hormone. These hormones cause the sympathetic nervous system to stimulate the pituitary gland and adrenal glands. This triggers the release of catecholamines, including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.
This reaction chain results in stress symptoms such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. Our body can stay in fight or flight for 20 to 60 minutes after the threat is gone, which is how long it takes for the parasympathetic nervous system to return it to pre-arousal levels.
Physical Signs of Fight or Flight
Physical stress symptoms or signs, that fight or flight response has kicked in are:
- Dilated pupils: When in danger, our body increases its awareness of surroundings. Pupil dilation allows more light into our eyes, resulting in better vision of our surrounding area.
- Pale or flushed skin: Our blood flow to the surface body areas is reduced. Blood flow to the muscles, brain, legs, and arms is increased. Our body’s clotting ability also increases to prevent excess blood loss in the event of injury.
- Rapid heart rate and breathing: Heartbeat and respiration rate increase to provide the body with the energy and oxygen needed to fuel a rapid response to danger.
- Trembling: The muscles tense and become primed for action, which can cause trembling or shaking.
Fight or Flight Benefits
- Critical role in how we deal with stress and danger. Under threats, the body response prepares the body to either fight or flee. You are better prepared to perform under pressure.
- Stress can be helpful, making it more likely you will cope effectively with the threat. This type of stress can help you perform better in stressful situations such as at school or work.
- Some even suggest that the urge to fight others in an attempt to harm them is instead transformed into the urge to fight to protect them. This may be beneficial when the fight or flight response is triggered by negative emotions such as anger and fear.
- In life threatening situations it plays a critical role in your survival by making you fight or flee.
While the fight or flight response happens automatically, that doesn’t mean that it is always accurate. Sometimes we respond in the same way with no actual threats around, because this response can be triggered by real and imaginary threats. Phobias are a good example of falsely triggered response in the face of a perceived threat.
Constantly being in fight or flight mode (with no stress relief), such as when facing repeated stressors, can also be harmful to your health. Chronic stress can increase the risk of:
- Chronic fatigue
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Headaches and migraines
- Heart attack and stroke
- High blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and obesity
- Poor immune function
- Reproductive and sexual dysfunction
- Worsened breathing problems, such as those related to asthma.
It is commonly understood as a universal mechanism that exists across times and cultures. On one hand, it is correct. The physiological and endocrinological mechanisms, which are behind the stress response are not a modern invention. However, on the other hand, the universality claim is potentially problematic. Stress has become, but has not always been, a way to be a person. To clarify, the social practices in which the physiological and endocrinological stress mechanisms are embedded, are not the same across times and cultures.
Putting the stress concept in historical context and acknowledging that its use emerged in a specific historical environment enables us to take a step back and to think about the ways that stress shapes our lives. If we lived in the 14th century, we most certainly would have used the term stress. However, with a few notable exceptions it would have very little to do with our psychological state, except by implication. It would have more to do with adversity, hardship, or some form of affliction. The shift in meaning started to occur only in the 18th and 19th century.
As most of you know, the 18th and 19th century are associated with intense scientific and industrial progress. As sciences developed, language adapted in order to accommodate and articulate these changes.
The Term Stress
The term stress was borrowed from the field of physics by one of the fathers of stress research Hans Selye. In physics, stress describes the force that produces strain on the physical body. For example, bending a piece of metal until it snaps (This occurs because of the force or stress exerted on it), which would relate to stress symptoms.
Hans Selye began using the term stress after completing his medical training at the University of Montreal in the 1920s. No matter what his hospitalised patients suffered from, they all had one thing in common. They all looked sick. He believed they were all under physical stress, with diverse stress symptoms.
Selye discovered that after a rat was exposed to a stressor, a typical “syndrome” appeared, which was not related to the physical damage done by the stressor. Selye noted that regardless of the type of stressor exposed by the rats, the stages emerged after exposure.
In the first stage (6-46 hours after initial injury), amongst a myriad of symptoms, rats experienced a notable decrease in size of the thymus (organ responsible for producing T-cells, critical to immunity strategies).
In the second stage, beginning at 48 hours after initial injury, it seemed the brain structures responsible for the production of the organism’s growth ceased to function in favour of other structures which would be more greatly needed (economising body’s resources).
Selye believed that stress was a non-specific strain on the body caused by irregularities in normal body functions. It resulted in the release of stress hormones. He called this the “General Adaptation Syndrome” (our body’s short-term and long-term reactions to stress).
CLOSER LOOK AT THE GENERAL ADAPTATION SYNDROME
General adaptation syndrome had three stages according to Hans Selye’s theory:
Stage 1: Alarm reaction
This is the immediate reaction to a stressor. In the initial phase, humans exhibit a “fight or flight” response. This response takes energy and focus away from other systems (e.g. immune system) increasing our vulnerability to illness.
Stage 2: Resistance
If reactions against stress continue, the body becomes accustomed to being stressed. However, this adaptation is not good for your health, since most of your body’s energy is concentrated on stress reactions.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
The final stage after a long-term exposure to stress. The body’s resistance to stress is gradually reduced and collapses as the immune system becomes ineffective. According to Selye, patients who experience long-term stress could succumb to heart attacks or severe infection due to their reduced resistance to illness. Stress relief is a must.
When our body is exposed to stress it responds with inflammation for healing. Both stress and inflammation are completely natural and beneficial in the short term. Long term, the reality is pretty dark. There are between 75% and 90% of human diseases related to the activation of our body’s stress system. For example, stress can impair our immune system, which can lead to a number of further health issues. Long term stress collapses our body’s homeostasis maintained by our endocannabinoid system. We need to empower it to receive the stress relief benefits.
CANNABINOIDS FOR STRESS
Many people use cannabis for stress relief. But how much, what kind of cannabinoid ratio and dosage, is still open for discussion. Most research exploring the effects of cannabis on anxiety and stress focuses on the two main cannabinoids present in cannabis, CBD and THC. Studies suggest that CBD can soothe anxiety and relieve stress. THC research on the other hand shows that taken in larger doses can cause anxiety and stress symptoms in some cases.
The work published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, suggests that inhaling cannabis can significantly reduce short term levels of depression, anxiety, and stress but may contribute to worse overall feelings of depression in long term. However, these studies were performed with THC only strains, which is not the best option if you know at least a bit about how cannabis and the entourage effect work. New studies took a different approach and measured the entire cannabinoids effect.
Survey data suggests that these two cannabinoids can produce different effects when used together.. It appears that real life cannabis users generally favour the whole plant cannabis products (full spectrum of cannabinoids) for promoting relaxation. They include CBD and THC along with other cannabinoids. Moreover, research suggests that CBD appears to block the anxiety provoking effects of THC. One study also found that other cannabinoids such as THCA, THCV, and CBG also impact anxiety positively.
Furthermore, Carrie Cuttler, professor of psychology and her team at Washington State University (WSU) found that cannabis high in CBD and low in THC was optimal for reducing symptoms of depression. Cannabis high in CBD and THC also produced very large reductions. As they noticed, CBD is crucial for the best possible results when fighting depression or for stress relief.
Results of WSU Research
The results showed that patients using cannabis saw a significant reduction in their adverse feelings with depression symptoms being reduced in 89,3% of sessions. In 3,2% of sessions the results were exacerbated, and there was no change in 7,5% of sessions.
After comparing results with different levels of CBD and THC, they found that using cannabis with relatively low levels of THC and relatively high levels of CBD had the greatest effect in combating depression. When it came to stress relief, high levels of CBD and high levels of THC were also very effective.
HOW EXACTLY DO CANNABINOIDS WORK
To understand how cannabinoids work we first have to learn about our endocannabinoid system. It is a system of cannabinoid receptors spread across our body, endocannabinoids which are produced by our body, and enzymes for endocannabinoid degradation. The endocannabinoid system serves as the master system of support to all our other body systems and processes. In short, it keeps our body balanced.
Due to bad habits or triggers from environment, this balance is ruined and by using cannabis cannabinoids, we can help our endocannabinoid system get back on track. You can learn more about the endocannabinoid system in the article here.
Cannabinoids Affect Stress Relief
Now that you learned the basics of how cannabinoids and endocannabinoid systems work we can take a look at the science behind the effects of stress, stress symptoms, and how cannabinoids can help with it. Although cannabinoids help us in multiple ways, we will focus on the (HPA) hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis.
The system includes two elements of our brain, the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland located on top of our kidneys. When experiencing a stressful situation, the hypothalamus releases a hormone called corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH). When CRH comes into contact with the pituitary gland it further releases another hormone called the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH travels down to the adrenal gland through the bloodstream. When it gets there, the adrenal glands release cortisol, the main hormone released in our stress response. The more cortisol you release the more stress you experience. You can read more about cortisol and cannabinoids here.
Other brain areas such as the amygdala, frontal cortex, and hippocampus also play a role in how the HPA axis operates. These areas have CB1 cannabinoid receptors. When cannabinoids such as THC bind to these receptors, our stress response changes. But does cannabis really work for stress relief?
Chronic Stress and Cannabis
Stressful experiences that result from long-term and continuous exposure to stressors result in chronic stress. People turn to cannabis to cope with these prolonged negative experiences. A survey showed that 72% of cannabis users use it to relax or relieve tension. Coping with problems associated with chronic stress is a big motivator for frequent cannabis use.
Individuals prone to high levels of stress or addiction, risk being trapped within the positive feedback loop associated with chronic cannabis use. For example those who experience greater stress are more likely to use cannabis as a coping method. The same individuals are more prone to developing an addiction, which leads to problematic cannabis use. However, as discussed in the previous sections cannabinoid ratio and dosage has a large effect with this.
Acute Stress and Cannabis
Cannabis and acute stress have a very different relationship. Acute stress refers to any kind of stress that happens in the moment such as a job interview, being late to catch your plane, or before a test. For new or occasional users, cannabis will activate the HPA axis. How it affects the stress response depends on the amount of cannabis consumed.
At low THC doses, acute stress will not affect you very much and the stress symptoms can die down pretty quickly. This is because THC dampens our neural responses to emotion or cues like stress. The response is much lower. However, at higher THC doses you might experience the opposite effect. Higher doses of THC have been shown to induce more stress symptoms (feelings) in response to an acute stressor (not including the combination with CBD)
For a chronic cannabis user there seems to be more changes in the stress response. Chronic use is connected to HPA axis dysfunction, that is why it varies how chronic cannabis users respond to stressors. Chronic users also display lower responses to emotional regulation centres like the amygdala, which also regulates HPA axis activity. When facing an acute stressor, chronic cannabis users experience a blunted stress response. This means there is no rise in their cortisol levels and their mood is less altered compared to non-users (with less stress symptoms).
Although stress response looks blunted, this pattern of response has been connected to the general hyperactivity of the HPA axis. This translates to generally higher cortisol levels, which makes them score higher on anxiety measures. This hyperactivity can lead to impaired hormonal stress response to stressors and emotional cues.
Multiple studies show that cannabinoids can help overcome stress. However, micro dosing cannabis might be the most effective way. Compounds such as THC can beat anxiety in low doses or promote anxiety in higher doses. It is very person specific.
CBD has also shown positive effects when it comes to stress relief. It is worth noting, that as it does not bind directly to CB1 or CB2 cannabinoid receptors, it does not beat stress in the same way that THC does. It seems that stress relieving effects of CBD come from its ability to activate the 5HT1A serotonin receptor. That is why a combination of various cannabinoids and terpenes is effective and battles stress from multiple sides (full spectrum). You can learn more about cannabinoid effects on serotonin here.
Furthermore, combination of cannabinoids and terpenes works with sleep problems and insomnia very well. CBN, small doses of THC, and terpenes such as myrcene and linalool are more efficient than only using pure CBD (isolate).
Terpenes, compounds in cannabis which activate a specific scent, taste, and effect, can affect cannabinoid behaviour. Different combinations of terpenes at different dosages may also determine the effect a specific strain of cannabis or product can have. For example, beta-caryophyllene has stress relieving properties. However, when it is combined with high amounts of THC, THCV, limonene, and pinene (also for stress relief), some individuals report an energetic feeling.
While this combination can be used to beat stress and anxiety, a too high dose can cause an edgy feeling in some individuals. The combination is most appropriate for people needing a daytime boost and is usually best taken in low doses. People suffering from depression may also find particular use with this combination of cannabinoids and terpenes.
One of the reasons CBD products can help with sleep problems is because of the range of terpenes present in whole cannabis products. If cannabis contains linalool, myrcene, and humulene, you can expect more sleepy effects. However, if it is limonene, pinene, and beta-caryophyllene, combined with CBD it might be wake promoting. THC could work similarly and due to its partial agonism of CB1 receptors, it could boost the effects of other cannabinoids and terpenes.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CBD OILS
Terpenes and the Entourage Effect
Combining cannabinoids with other beneficial terpenes found in cannabis may also help promote a sense of calm and relaxation. Research indicates that terpenes may play an influential part in activating the anti-anxiety, anti-stress properties of the plant. The combined effect is called the entourage effect. You can read more about it on the following link here.
Terpenes D-limonene and linalool, in particular, have been shown to exert significant anxiety relieving activity. Research suggests that linalool brings its relaxing, uplifting effect via the 5-HT1A receptor, which is a serotonin receptor. Anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication also work on this receptor.
RELAX AND BREATHE
Looking back, the ancient origins of stress are still with us and have not changed much. But the environment has. That is why we need to pay attention to our internal processes and adjust our response when dealing with modern stress . It is not very likely we are being attacked by a lion or chased by a pack of wolves, but similar stress symptoms are still activated.
As we could see, there are different types of stress, which can be beneficial to our bodies or can have devastating consequences. Many people seek out alternative treatments for stress and mood related disorders. Pharmaceutical treatments can have loads of side effects and many view cannabis as a natural alternative, preferring it to pharmaceutical drugs.
Cannabinoid research showed a lot of potential in cannabis use for stress relief. Although the mechanisms are very complex, there are common results showing high CBD and low THC combination, including other cannabinoids and terpenes, to be the most suitable option for most. We do have to take into account that people are very different and so are their endocannabinoid systems as well as stress symptoms. That is why the usual approach starts with low doses, which we increase gradually.
Nature always has a solution. We just have to find it.
G. D. C.
24. 11. 2022