You Have a System in Your Body Named After Cannabis (And Understanding It Could Be the Key to Managing Stress)
Investigations into Cannabis in the 1990s led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system in mammals. Although the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is named after Cannabis, it began evolving before the plant was around and dated back to 600 million years ago! We are still learning about the full extent of the ECS’s role in the human body, but studies have shown it is one of the key endogenous systems that regulate pain sensation and that ECS signalling modulates the major neuroendocrine stress response system.
So, what exactly is the endocannabinoid system?
The ECS is located in the Central Nervous System and Immune System. Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters and naturally occur in all mammals. Even if somebody has never consumed phytocannabinoids, which are what we call the cannabinoid compounds produced by Cannabis plants, they will still have endocannabinoids in their body. The ECS consists of endocannabinoids, the receptors that bind to them, and the enzymes that break them down.
We already have an insight into the role that the ECS plays in our experiences of pain and stress, as mentioned above, but there is so much more still being uncovered! It is now thought the ECS may be responsible for therapeutically regulating oxidative stress in some diseases. Oxidative stress is usually a result of an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body, and it can cause disease. This is the reason we’re told that eating high-antioxidant foods like blueberries can lower our risks of disease later in life.
Obviously, the ‘stress’ in ‘oxidative stress’ doesn’t refer to anxiety in the way that the word is commonly used. The use of ‘stress’ in medical terminology was introduced by Hans Selye, an endocrinologist who is known as ‘the father of stress research’ and who defined stress as the effects of anything that seriously threatens homeostasis (i.e. the capacity to maintain internal stability). Selye’s pioneering work on stress helped generate a greater understanding of how physiological and psychological aspects of stress influence our health, which in turn has led to the emergence of a more holistic understanding of how stress affects us, as well as how we can combat it.
Stress: a psycho-biological phenomenon
So, we know that the ECS is located in the Central Nervous System (CNS), which consists of the spinal and brain cord and the Immune System (IS), a complex network of cells, tissues, proteins and organs that defend the body from disease. But did you know that the CNS and IS are both closely involved in our stress responses? More specifically, the brain tissue in the CNS and the cells of your IS.
As horrible as anxiety feels, our bodies’ stress responses are amazing! When a perceived threat triggers an active stress response, your body releases stress hormones that make energy stores available. Not only does more energy become available, in case you need to run or fight, but this energy is directed towards tissues that become more active when you are under stress: the skeletal tissues and the brain. Simultaneously, the cells in your IS are activated, so they are ready to get to work if you obtain an injury due to the perceived threat.
So next time you are hard on yourself because you had racing thoughts and shaky legs while you were making a speech, try to remember that your stress response is an amazing product of evolution! However, when we regularly have inappropriate stress responses, the strain can take its toll on our mental health. The physical and psychological effects that come from feeling anxious all the time are horrible and hold us back from fulfilling our potential to enjoy moments, connect with others and succeed in our chosen goals. Moreover, chronic stress can actually make us more likely to get ill. Studies have shown that people under higher levels of stress are more likely to contract viruses they are exposed to.
Unfortunately, telling anxious people that stress is bad for their health will normally just make them feel under even more pressure! Instead, let’s delve deeper into how understanding the ECS can help us to positively alleviate stress. To begin with, we need to learn a bit more about a molecule called anandamide and its role in the ECS.
Anandamide: the bliss molecule
Anandamide is one of the endocannabinoids that makes up the ECS. Its name was derived from the Sanskrit word ananda meaning ‘joy/bliss/delight’. Anandamide is sometimes referred to as ‘the bliss molecule’ because it helps to ease pain and boost brain function. The experience of ‘runner’s high’ after exercising is caused by anandamide. There is also speculation that ingesting cocoa or chocolate may boost anandamide! The high experienced by someone smoking marijuana is due to the similarity between the endocannabinoid, anandamide, and the phytocannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is high in the type of Cannabis plants that marijuana is harvested from. This similarity means that THC can attach to the same receptors in the brain as anandamide to produce a feeling of euphoria. However, intaking high levels of THC leads to mind-altering effects and increased feelings of anxiety.
Studies have shown that cannabidiol (CBD), another phytocannabinoid, modulates the ECS by increasing anandamide. CBD halts the breakdown of anandamide in your brain, meaning that it stays in your system for longer. Unlike THC, CBD is not intoxicating and will not cause a spike in anxiety levels. In fact, clinical studies into the therapeutic potential for using CBD oil for anxiety have had very promising results. Preclinical evidence conclusively shows that CBD decreases anxiety behaviours and human experimental findings suggest an excellent safety profile. A scientific literature review from earlier this year highlighted that CBD has a ‘promising role as an alternative therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders’ and that more research is needed to standardise approaches to dosing.
CBD benefits and where it comes from
Hemp (or industrial hemp) is a type of Cannabis plant which is naturally low in THC. Although there is some THC in hemp, it is at levels too low to induce intoxicating or anxiety-heightening side-effects. This also means that, unlike marijuana, CBD products that are derived from a hemp plant that contains ≤ 0.2% THC content are legal to buy and sell in many countries.
As well as alleviating feelings of stress, CBD offers other benefits to people struggling with anxiety. The remedial effects that result from CBD increasing anandamide, thus raising feelings of wellbeing and relieving pain, are due to the phytocannabinoid acting on the ECS in the CNS (specifically, the brain). But the ECS is also located in the IS, and we know that chronic, acute stress can leave the sufferer more vulnerable to contracting viruses. This is partly due to the over-activation of the immune system in those who undergo chronic, acute stress. It has also been hypothesised that stress could promote inflammatory activity. Thankfully CBD also has the potential to assuage some of these harmful repercussions by helping to mediate the release of cytokines from immune cells in a way that promotes a reduction in inflammation and pain.