How Stress Impacts your Endocannabinoid System

How Stress Impacts your Endocannabinoid System


At one time in human history, the majority of the world’s people died from communicable diseases which now have cures. Thanks to modern science, diseases that once wiped out millions of people are now virtually nonexistent. Yet even with all the advancements we have made in medicine, science, and lifestyle, our wellbeing is still at risk from a pervasive, destructive force — stress.

Research about the morbidity of stress-related illness tells us that “emotional stress is a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death in the United States: cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide” (Salleh). From a medical perspective, stress-related illness is not a communicable disease — it can’t be spread through the air or skin-to-skin contact. Yet with stress-related illness on a meteoric rise, perhaps it is time to consider how stress spreads — through our minds, through our bodies, and through our world.

Fighting or Flying through Stress

Stressful situations, real or imagined, create an immediate chemical response in our minds and bodies. Any signal of danger can trigger our fight-or-flight response, which has evolved with us through the eons to keep us safe and alert. When we lived in hunter-gatherer societies, this reflexive response protected us from the threat of predators or enemy tribes on the horizon.

For some of us, those very real sources of danger are now imaginary and have been replaced by endless email, crawling traffic, longer workdays, sedentary lifestyles, and an oversaturation of information. We could be sitting in a perfectly safe, air-conditioned office, and a stressful work situation could prompt our bodies to release a flood of cortisol (the stress hormone) as if our lives depended on it. It is vital for our bodies to return to a balanced state after stress, because chronic levels of cortisol have been shown to be toxic to the brain, resulting in

  • accelerated aging
  • impaired memory and the ability to learn
  • increased anxiety and fear
  • depression (Stephens)

Humans also tend to make worse decisions when chronically stressed. Whether the decision is about diet, exercise, or coping mechanisms, stressed people may often make choices that only further perpetuate an unhealthy, unbalanced cycle (Trafton).

Reducing Stress with the ECS

Our endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of messengers and receivers embedded all throughout our body, with the sole purpose of helping us achieve balance within all the other bodily systems. After a real or perceived threat disrupts our homeostasis, the ECS assists in sending the cannabinoids anandamide (AEA, nicknamed the bliss molecule) and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) to stressed-out areas, creating feelings of euphoria and relaxation.


People with post-traumatic stress disorder have been shown to exhibit lower levels of AEA and 2-AG, suggesting that these cannabinoids play a crucial role in our ability to cope with life’s stressors — big and small, mundane and traumatic alike (Hill & Lee). When we support our ECS, whether through mindful cannabis consumption, healthy diet, exercise, regular sleep, or meditation, we give our body what it needs to process stress in a healthy way.

When the flood of cortisol passes and the feeling of immediate danger drains away, our ECS can be prepared to remind our bodies that we are okay, that we will be balanced again, and that it is time to restore our energy. The ECS has a vast amount of physiological roles that we are barely beginning to understand, but those many jobs can best be summarized as helping us “relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect” (McPartland et al). Sometimes the ECS just reminds us to take care of ourselves.

When we care for ourselves once, we make it easier to do so in the future. When we respond to stress by taking care of ourselves and our support systems, we build long-term health and healing.

This article was first published on Hempsley

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