Daily stress has a detrimental impact on health. It is considered the most common cause of illness in society, possibly resulting in “as many as 70% of all visits to family doctors.” Stress is actually caused by the survival instinct or the fight-or-flight response when put under pressure or when a demand is made upon the body. As a result of stress, the body increases the production of adrenaline, a stimulating neurotransmitter, which leads to an increase in a hormone known as cortisol. This creates a response in the sympathetic nervous system, which includes a rise in heart rate and blood pressure (to get more blood to the muscles, brain and heart), faster breathing (to take in more oxygen), tensing of muscles (preparation for action), heightening of mental alertness and sensitivity of sense organs (to assess the situation and act quickly), as well as an increase of blood flow to the brain, heart and muscles (the organs that are most important in dealing with danger). At the same time, there is a decrease in the parasympathetic nervous system, which means less blood to the skin, digestive tract, kidneys and liver (where it is not needed in times of crisis). In addition, there is an increase in blood sugar, fats and cholesterol (for extra energy) and a rise in platelets and blood clotting factors (to prevent hemorrhage in case of injury). Once the stress ends, they body will try to restore balance and return to normal functioning. However, if stress is chronic this restoration cannot occur. Over time it can make a person feel fatigued instead of energized.
The stressors or triggers are often psychological such as loss of a job or income, a change in relationship or the loss of a loved one, or just being in an uncomfortable situation (like not having enough time or meeting new people). Sometimes even just being sick can add stress, which only makes it more difficult to get better. There are several disorders directly related to stress such as anxiety, high blood pressure, headaches, depression, weakened immune system, insomnia, impotence, diarrhea, change in appetite, and fatigue.
Stress and Cannabis
NOTE FOR FIRST TIME READERS: Cannabinoids – such as THC, CBD – and terpenes are the main medically active components in cannabis (aka marijuana). For more information on these components, and much more about the plant, see our section on the Science of Cannabis.
Cannabis is ideally suited to treat many of the symptoms of stress and is an effective remedy for most of the disorders listed above. Cannabinoids affect many biological processes including appetite regulation, pain (including headaches), anxiety, mood, sleep and blood pressure. We know that endocannabinoid system in the human body affects hormone regulation. One study looked at anandamide, an endocannabinoid that animals and humans make in response to stress. When anandamide remains in the system longer, it acts as an anxiety reliever and antidepressant.
Human studies have shown variable effects of cannabis and cannabinoids on the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). Similar to the effects in animals, increased cortisol levels have been reported after acute administration of cannabis. In contrast to these findings, when chronic users of cannabis were observed in a study there was no change in the natural rhythm of secretion of cortisol (the body’s stress management hormone). At socially relevant doses, Δ-9-THC raised cortisol levels in a dose-dependent manner but frequent users showed blunted increases relative to healthy controls.
Relaxation is the key to stress management and should guide the approach to cannabis therapy. Strain selection is an important aspect in treating the various symptoms of stress. Often the need for relaxation is coupled with “burn-out” and fatigue. Hybrid strains of cannabis (a combination of indica and sativa) are both stimulating and relaxing. They offer the best results along with the combination CBD and THC products.
Gobbi G, et al. Antidepressant-like activity and modulation of brain monoaminergic transmission by blockade of anandamide hydrolysis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America. 2005, 102: 18620-18625.
Zuardi AW, Guimarães FS, Moreira AC. Effect of cannabidiol on plasma prolactin, growth hormone and cortisol in human volunteers. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research. 1993, 26: 213-
Ranganathan M, et al. The effects of cannabinoids on serum cortisol and prolactin in humans. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2009, 203(4): 737–744.
Cone EJ, Johnson RE, Moore JD, Roache JD: Acute effects of smoking marijuana on hormones, subjective effects and performance in male human subjects. Pharmac Biochem Behav 1986, 24:1749-1754.
Dax EM, Pilotte NS, Adler WH, Nagel JE, Lange WR: The effects of 9-ene-tetrahydrocannabinol on hormone release and immune function. J Steroid Biochem 1989, 34:263-270.