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Cannabis & Stress - How Marijuana & Stress Hormones Interact

Did you ever wonder what produces your stress response to certain circumstances around you? What's more, why do you get more stressed depending on the situation? It can vary a lot, your stress response, as well as how quickly you relax from an extreme state of stress.

Cortisol - this damnable thing is at fault. It's a stress hormone, and you could call it your personal alarm system. It controls your biological responses to certain situations in the environment that are perceived to be threatening or exhaustive, either on the body or mind. Cortisol also produces the fight-or-flight reflex when you're in a really dangerous situation.

Its other functions include:

  • Managing the level of fats, proteins and carbohydrates in the body
  • Keeping inflammation under control
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Controlling your sleep cycle
  • Increasing blood sugar
  • More cortisol - more energy to counter stress, which is eventually regulated

So, you see, cortisol is very important to a functional human being. Too much, and you might become overweight, your muscles will weaken, your skin will bruise quickly, and your risk of Diabetes will spike up. Too little and you will feel weak, you will get easily fatigued, and your blood pressure might drop too much

Moreover, when low on cortisol, you automatically suffer from Addison's disease, a condition where your adrenal glands (the ones that produce cortisol) don't produce enough of it.

But, how does this have anything to do with cannabis? Simple - cannabis interacts with these stress hormones.

How do marijuana and stress hormones interact?

Cannabis interacts with these stress hormones through the endocannabinoid system and the CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors in the body. The ECS (endocannabinoid system) influences many bodily functions, among which are mood, appetite and digestion, sleep, stress, muscle formation, learning and memory, and so on.

It's been shown that THC interacts with the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is responsible for stress hormones, among other things. This axis mediates your body's stress response through the release of cortisol by the adrenal glands. After the stressor event is eliminated, the remaining cortisol signals the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland to stop the process that leads to the creation of more cortisol.

While high levels of cortisol are quite normal, a constant state of high cortisol maintained for prolonged periods can lead to negative outcomes. That is exactly what cannabis does - raising the level of cortisol within the body, and it might even be the reason why you're shorter than others. For infrequent users of marijuana, the spikes in cortisol might lead to more anxiety and increased blood pressure over time.

For long-term users, exposure to cannabis could likely lead to a muted stress response, meaning that your body no longer reacts as effectively to cortisol and its stress-mediating functions. In this study, researchers have managed to demonstrate that heavy cannabis users manifested virtually no elevation in their cortisol levels when confronted with stress-inducing situations.

This means that their stress response was near zero, which might be a good thing on the surface. It means you're more resilient to stress and can easily confront stressful situations. However, that's only one side of the same coin, the other being that a low-stress response indicates lower awareness and lower energy stores when responding to threats.

Carrie Cuttler, assistant professor of neuroscience and integrative psychology, says that “an inability to mount a proper hormonal response to stress could have detrimental effects that could potentially be harmful to the individual.” It's not surprising that a non-functional stress response system might be dangerous to the individual - think of the fight-or-flight reflex. If that reflex gets muted, your body will no longer warn you of impending threats, thus putting your life at risk.

Does this mean cannabis doesn’t relieve stress?

That’s a good question since we’ve all heard from countless sources that cannabis consumption can help you relax and reduce stress. With all the stuff I told you previously about the potential bad outcomes of cannabis consumption, is there any place for the benefits?

Fortunately, there is. Researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago pioneered an interesting study, the first of its kind in this field. They set out to discover whether cannabis can relieve stress and under what conditions that would happen. They found out that low doses of cannabis do indeed lower stress levels, while higher doses (enough to get mildly high) increase the stress levels, even leading to anxiety.

They tested 42 volunteers who smoked cannabis but who weren’t daily users. They divided them into three groups:

  • One group received 7.5 milligrams of THC
  • Another group received 12.5 milligrams of THC
  • The last group received placebo pills with no THC

After allowing the THC to be absorbed into the bloodstream, the researchers put the volunteers through a mock interview where they subjected them to multiple stress factors. Before, during and after these interviews, the volunteers had to rate their stress levels. During the experiment, the researchers constantly measured cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure.

The first group who received 7.5 milligrams of THC reported feeling less stressed during psychosocial activities when compared to the group who received placebos. As for the group who received 12.5 milligrams of THC, they reported feeling more stressed out and had more intense negative emotions throughout and after the tests.

What’s interesting is that the cortisol levels, heart rate as well as blood pressure suffered no significant alteration before, during, and after the experiment, in all three groups. However, one thing is clear – the volunteers who received the lower dose of marijuana were less stressed and had a way less negative reaction to the experiment compared to the two other groups.

This evidence can be corroborated with the incredible amount of anecdotic evidence you can find out there. Cannabis can indeed lower your stress levels and make you more relaxed during stress-inducing events. However, that’s only true for a low dose of cannabis. Higher ones produce the opposite effect.