For many of us, stress might appear like a background buzz that’s often drowned out by the immediate demands of the day. But the thoughts are present nonetheless: guests for Thanksgiving week will mean extra laundry and oh boy those maroon flannel sheets for the fold-out couch are getting tired. And then it’ll be time for Christmas and while I love creating handmade cards, clearly that project should have started in July and how will I catch up?
And on it goes, our brains on their hamster wheels of fret and worry.
That hamster wheel sets off a chemical chain reaction in our bodies. Our digestive and immune systems can be disrupted, and our ability to focus and retain information can decrease. Our heart rate and blood pressure may rise. We experience these biological changes as anxiety, and while these reactions are intended to support our survival, the longer our bodies experience these states of anxiety, the harder it can be to break and re-regulate the chemical cascades that are reflecting and causing the stress.
According to Carey S. Clark, PhD, RN and Associate Professor of Nursing at University of Maine-Augusta, “Stress is related to approximately 70% of primary care physician visits. It can manifest in the body through sleeping disorders, acute or chronic pain, headaches, depression, and other disorders.”
Some of us will deal with our stress via meditation and yoga. Others might find that our consumption of sugary foods, or nicotine, or alcohol ramps up.
But for many, therapeutic cannabis is their preferred calmative. And there’s solid science to support that preference.
Dr. Clark continues, “Cannabis creates homeostasis in the body, and helps to address both these symptoms (of stress) and their causes.” This happens via the action of a complex system of receptors in the human body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
ECS receptors are abundant in areas of the human brain which regulate emotional behavior, including responses to stress such as fear and anxiety.
When we consume cannabis, cannabinoids in the plant connect with these receptors to activate the ECS. Even if we don’t use the cannabis plant, our bodies also naturally produce “endocannabinoids” which fit into these receptors to activate the ECS.
One of the most-studied endocannabinoids is called “anandamide,” a molecular analogue to THC from cannabis plants. In rodent studies dating back more than a decade, stressful situations are clearly linked to lowered levels of anandamide.
Studies using mouse models have shown that injections of anandamide can reduce the fight or flight response and anxious behavioral reactions to stressful situations. The effect appears to be dose-dependent and bi-directional: while small doses decrease the biological changes that result in stress, too much can increase panic and fear response.
Because cannabinoids from the cannabis plant also interact with the same ECS receptors, when we consume marijuana, we are adjusting our biochemistry in ways that affect our response to stress.
In contemporary culture, this effect is cartoonishly represented by the “lazy stoner” stereotype. But in reality, responsible dosing of cannabis products helps our bodies lower our heart rate; improve digestive motility; smooth muscle fiber; interrupt hyperarousal reactions; and calm our breathing.
At present, anxiety and depression are not stand-alone qualifying conditions for a medical cannabis certificate in Maine. However, patients who qualify to use medical cannabis for another condition may also find that the plant helps them navigate stress in a safe and therapeutic way.
Instead of a glass of wine, they sip a precision-dosed infused green tea. Along with their yoga practice, they apply soothing infused salves with no psychoactive effect. Rather than raiding the leftover Halloween candy, they savor a canna-chocolate before bed.
In a year when everything, from politics to the deaths of cultural icons to natural disasters, seems to be conspiring to increase our levels of stress, low doses of therapeutic cannabis can be a safe and effective way to put the brakes on that hamster wheel in our heads.