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What is the Relationship between Stress and your Endocannabinoid System?

With 2020 being a year that no one expected, people’s stress levels could have understandably increased, and, unfortunately, stress has been discovered to hinder the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which in turn makes the human body more vulnerable to illnesses, both physical and mental. The cannabinoid receptors involved in this system are CB1R and CB2R which can be found throughout the entire body- CB1R is mainly found in the neurons (brain, spinal cord, and the nervous system), and CB2R is mainly found in circulating and tissue-specific immune cells, like microglia. In essence, when the ECS is functioning at its best, the endocannabinoids anandamide (ANA) and 2-AG (2-arachidonoylglycerol) initiate cannabinoid receptor signalling throughout the body, which assists the body in adapting to stress and keeps us in healthy homeostasis. It is known that the ECS plays a role in modulating pain, mood, inflammation, and immune system responses, therefore you can see how it could be involved and help with dealing with stress too.

Neuroscientist, Dr Greg Gerdeman has said that, ‘Animals learn to get past traumatic fear using endocannabinoid signalling...The very perception of threat is in some way sort of gated by endocannabinoids like a safety switch on a fire alarm. Animals with a higher anandamide level in the amygdala, an area of the brain’s fear centre, are less reactive to a threat. And if you put a human being in an MRI brain scanner and give them a low dose of THC, those brain areas will be less hyper-reactive to fear of threatening stimuli. The neuroendocrine, physiological circuit of stress is regulated at every point by this endocannabinoid system.’

It has been found in previous research studies that people who suffer from chronic stress have been observed to have lower circulating endocannabinoid levels. One study which consisted of human subjects being socially isolated for 520 days to imitate space travel to Mars, were found to have much lower levels of 2-AG and reduced positive emotions. On the positive side of research, however, it has been found that anandamide levels increase significantly during high-intensity endurance running.

It is clear that during the current COVID-19 world that we are living in, reduced endocannabinoid levels could make us more reactive to potential or perceived threats around us. It would not be surprising that during these times we may all be slightly endocannabinoid-challenged, but there are ways to assist in rebalancing yourself physiologically, and increasing the production of endocannabinoids while decreasing any endocannabinoid breakdown. This can be done by getting up and moving, by creating an exercise routine and plan, even if it is at home, exercise helps to promote balance in the body and optimise the ECS.

So if you are feeling more stressed and anxious in recent months due to the many changes in 2020, think about how your endocannabinoid system could be out of balance, and what you can do to support your endocannabinoid health.