What Is the Impact of Stress, and How Can Cannabis Help?

We hear a lot about how life today is full of stress, and how we need to control the stress in our lives to avoid medical complications. But do you understand how all of this happens? And how can cannabis help?

Stress is the body’s reaction to an external challenge or demand. It can come from an event or thought that can leave a person feeling frustrated, angry, nervous or frightened. Stress impacts many systems of the body, and causes a wide variety of effects. When there is a perception of stress, danger, or fear there is a release of stress hormones–”fight-or-flight” chemicals including cortisol releasing hormone, cortisol, and catecholamines.

Cortisol increases the serum glucose levels, increases the brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues in preparation for any possible injury. It also curbs non-essential functions (immune system, metabolism, absorption of nutrients) as energy expended unnecessarily would decrease energy available for “fight-or-flight”.

Catecholamines (Adrenaline/Epinephrine, Noradrenaline/Norepinephrine) are also released as part of the “fight-or-flight” response. Elevated levels of Adrenaline cause anxiety, rapid heartbeat, heart palpitations, shaking, elevated blood pressure, sweating, a pale face, weight loss and extreme headaches. Elevated Noradrenaline leads to panic attacks, hyperactivity, shaking, sweating, high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat, a pale face, severe headaches and heart and kidney damage, lethargy and lack of energy, orthostatic hypotension, (blood pressure drop when standing up), lack of concentration, ADHD and depression.

In response to stress, an individual’s muscles become tense. Chronic stress leads to a constant state of guardedness. This can lead to tension and migraine headaches, and muscular pain, especially in the lower back and upper extremities. Stress causes increased breathing problems in people with asthma and COPD because of this muscular contraction and hyperventilation can lead to panic attacks.

The cardiovascular system responds to increased stress with an acute increase in blood pressure, increased strength of the contractions of the heart, and a dilation of the blood vessels to the large muscles, such as the leg muscles which are responsible for running. Chronic stress leads to increases in blood pressure, diagnosed as hypertension and increasing the risk of MI (heart attack) and stroke. There is also an increase in inflammation of the lining of the coronary arteries which can lead to cardiovascular disease and blockage.

In the endocrine (hormone) system, stress impacts the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which controls the endocrine stress response. The proper regulation of glucocorticoids impacts the regulation of decreasing inflammation-impaired communication between the immune system and the HPA axis. Chronic depletion of this system leads to chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, depression and a variety of immune disorders.

In the GI system (digestive), these chemicals impact the neurons which communicate with the brain. Stress causes bloating, pain, and discomfort. It can lead to changes in the gut bacteria which can influence mood. In the esophagus, stress can lead to reflux and pain. In the stomach, it causes pain, bloating, nausea and vomiting, appetite changes, spasms, gas and burping. In the bowels, excessive stress leads to both diarrhea and constipation, muscle spasms, pain, increased gas, and weakening of the intestinal barrier which can cause gut bacteria to leak. Stress worsens irritable bowel disorder and irritable bowel syndrome.

In the nervous system, stress impacts the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) as well as the autonomic and somatic nervous systems (peripheral nervous system). The autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system, when stimulated, leads to increased heart rate, dilates bronchial passages, decreased motility of the large intestine, constrict blood vessels, dilate pupils, activate goosebumps, cause sweating and increase blood pressure. The parasympathetic nervous system controls the body’s ability to relax, leading to the “rest and digest state” as it stimulates digestion, activates metabolism, and helps the body relax.

In the male reproductive system, stress and the subsequent sympathetic nervous system arousal leads to increased cortisol which affects sexual functioning, decreasing desire, leading to erectile dysfunction, impotence, decreased sperm production, and abnormal sperm motility and morphology. In females, chronic stress leads to absent and irregular periods, increasingly painful periods, changes in length of the menstrual cycle, decreased desire, and impaired ability to get pregnant. Stress also impairs postpartum adjustment and bonding between the mother and child. It also increases symptoms of PMS and menopause.

Stress also impairs sleep, causing difficulty in falling asleep, difficulty in staying asleep, early final awakening and distorted sleep cycles. This creates a vicious cycle as decreased sleep increases stress, so things keep exacerbating.

As a Schedule 1 drug, there has been little research into cannabis, as our government declared it to have a high chance of abuse and /or addiction and no FDA-approved medical use. Yet there is a tremendous amount of empirical experience detailed over thousands of years of the medical impact of cannabis as a stress reducer. Patients report reduction in racing, ruminative thoughts, and the ability to dissociate a bit from the cognitive distortions that can fuel PTSD and anxiety symptoms, allowing the individual to be curious and wonder about the beliefs and conclusions which fuel this anxiety, and possibly determine that they are built on false beliefs and wrong interpretations. Cannabis has been reported to improve sleep, therefore supporting improved mental health. It has been shown to lower blood pressure and inflammation, prevent relapse on drugs and alcohol, treat anxiety symptoms, improve GI functioning by stabilizing IBD symptoms, decrease nausea and muscle spasms, decrease pain and increase relaxation, leading to better sleep.

Cannabis can improve social functioning and social support by allowing patients to feel comfortable around others, and therefore benefit from a supportive social network. It can help people add more fun to their lives. During these stressful times, with political and social unrest, environmental crises, war and financial uncertainty, cannabis helps people to cope, to tolerate change and uncertainty, without the discomforts associated with increased stress. Cannabis’ excellent tolerability and lack of toxicity make it an excellent choice for use in fighting stress.

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