Stress and Your Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
Stress is a common struggle for those of us constantly balancing some mix of home, school, work, family, friends, children, health, money, relationships, diet, exercise, and more – all of which puts demands on our minds and bodies.
Stress is fine as long as we keep things at a level we can manage, but life does not always allow for that.
While it’s never the same for any one person, each of us has a limit. When we exceed this limit, we tend to say we are stressed out.
Technically, stress is almost anything that you or your body interprets as a challenge to that delicate state we call homeostasis – which is really just a fancy word for all systems in the body being more or less in balance.
When you experience stress, your body activates a response that is largely controlled by your adrenal glands. If the stress is acute, then your adrenal glands release hormones that can cause your heart to speed up and make you breathe faster. You might also sweat, have muscle tension, chest pain, lightheadedness, and difficulty thinking, and feel anxious.
In small doses, we tend to manage the uncomfortable physical and emotional feelings of stress and move on.
But if we experience acute, traumatic stress, or chronic stress that is ongoing, then its negative effects on our health and emotional well-being can take a real toll. When stress becomes chronic it can contribute to a range of other adverse health concerns, such as anxious or depressed mood, poor sleep, challenges with pain, changes in blood pressure and blood sugar, weight gain, headaches, low immunity, digestive upset, and more.
In almost all cases, chronic stress is not great for most aspects of good health – physical or emotional.
Scientists have recently begun to understand the role of the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) in stress. We now know that the ECS is closely integrated with the better known adrenal system, and that the two systems have a major role to play together in how we experience, react to, and process stress.
One important thing to keep in mind is that the ECS is primarily a system of balance and homeostasis.
When it comes to modulating stress, things go both ways: The ECS both alters and is altered by stress. Endocannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body’s adrenal axis, as well as in parts of the brain (particularly the limbic system) where the body regulates things like fear, stress, anxiety, emotions, and memory.
A healthy endocannabinoid system helps keep our stress response from becoming too extreme – so we can experience a stressful event, and even if it is very unpleasant we will not over react to it. A healthy ECS also lets us put unpleasant memories behind us – an important part of emotional well-being.
Both acute and chronic stress can actually weaken the ECS, which makes us more vulnerable to stress – and perhaps more susceptible to developing emotional and physical issues related to an inability to keep our stress response under control.
To really return to a state of balance – homeostasis – it is important to harness the elements of a positive lifestyle, as well as to nourish the ECS.
Some things you might consider to reduce stress and to support a healthy ECS include:
- Exercise. All kinds of physical activity have been shown to help reduce stress. Take a walk, ride a bike, take a yoga or dance class. Even small bursts of exercise – say 20 minutes daily – can really help.
- Get outside. Too many of us spend too much of our lives indoors, which can really contribute to stress. Finding some regular time to be in your garden, at a park, or just outside with plenty of natural light and plants can benefit stress levels.
- Talk to someone. Spending time with caring friends and family is a great way to reduce stress. If you really need extra emotional support, then talk to a counselor, therapist, or other health professional.
- Get adequate sleep. If you aren’t sleeping, then your body never gets enough downtime to recover from the day’s stress. If sleep is a big issue for you, read our tips.
- Eat a healthy diet. Food is the fuel your body runs on, so keeping it well-nourished with whole grains, colorful fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins helps your body better manage stress.
- While you are at it, nourish your endocannabinoid system. A fair number of foods contain compounds that support your ECS. Fatty fish, nuts, and seeds provide the essential fats that are the building blocks of endocannabinoids. Also choose foods that contain valuable plant sources of cannabinoids (called phytocannabinoids). Dark chocolate, black truffle, black pepper, clove, cinnamon, oregano, basil, lavender, rosemary, and cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage) all contain phytocannabinoids that help nourish the ECS.
- Supplement your ECS with hemp. A nutritional supplement that includes phytocannabinoids from a source like hemp can help nourish the endocannabinoid system so it’s better able to handle stress.
Morena M, Patel S, Bains J, et al. Neurobiological interactions between stress and the endocannabinoid system. Neuropsychopharmacol 2016;41(1):80-102.
Akirav I. Role of the endocannabinoid system in anxiety and stress-related disorders. In Anxiety Disorders 2011. http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/17314/InTech-Role_of_the_endocannabinoid_system_in_anxiety_and_stress_related_disorders.pdf [accessed Nov. 2, 2018]
Lutz B, Marsicano G, Maldonado R, Hillard C. The endocannabinoid system in guarding against fear, anxiety and stress. Nat Rev Neurosci 2015;16(12):705-718.
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