Why Do We Experience Stress?
Our ancestors evolved the stress response as a way to get us out of a bind.
Imagine you came face to face with a saber-toothed tiger. It’s hungry, and human meat is undoubtedly on the menu.
In our normal state of mind, we might be able to fight the tiger off, but it’s unlikely we’ll be successful.
Luckily we have the stress response (also called “fight or flight response”).
Parts of our brain (the hypothalamus and pituitary) immediately recognize the threat and release hormones that travel to our adrenal glands sitting above each kidney.
These glands then start pumping out stress hormones like cortisol, which travel all around the body through the bloodstream to produce what we identify as stress.
This system is designed to give us a boost physically and mentally to help us either fight off the tiger or run away to safety.
Changes During Acute Stress Includes:
- The airway widens to allow more oxygen into the lungs
- Our heart rate speeds up to pump nutrients and oxygen faster and deeper into the muscles
- Our liver dumps glucose into the bloodstream to provide a boost of power to the body
- Our digestive and immune systems shut down to allow the body to focus the energy to the muscles and brain instead
- Our blood vessels tighten to push blood into the tiny capillaries more efficiently
- Neurotransmitters like norepinephrine are released to stimulate the brain and heighten awareness
All of these changes give us a temporary advantage over the tiger to help us get away from danger.
We become sharper, more aware of our surroundings, our muscles are stronger, we have more energy, and we become numb to pain and discomfort.
In this context, stress is extremely valuable. It can make the difference between life and death.
There are plenty of reports of people doing crazy feats of human capability while under the fight or flight response.
The Harmful Side Effects of Stress
In an encounter with a saber tooth tiger, stress helped us out. We were able to fight the tiger off or run for cover. Mission accomplished, we live to see another day.
Now the body needs to reverse the changes that occurred during the stress response and return to normal. We call this the “rest and digest” response.
Our adrenals stop producing cortisol, our blood sugar returns to normal, the heart rate slows, blood pressure declines, and our digestive and immune systems come back online.
This is how it’s meant to be, but it’s not always the case these days.
Most people these days are stressed about non-life-threatening activities like whether we’ll have enough money to buy that new pair of shoes, or if a relationship isn’t the way it used to be, or that we have too much work on our plates.
These types of stress don’t tend to go away. We never fight the tiger and get far enough away to slow down again. So we remain in a hyperstimulated state of stress.
This has many negative effects on the body long-term.
Some of the most common side-effects of stress include:
- Our adrenals burn out and stop producing the hormones we need to regulate our sleep-wake cycle
- Our immune systems are suppressed to the point where we seem to catch every cold or flu that comes our way
- We develop the metabolic disease when our blood sugar levels remain high for weeks or months on end
- Our suppressed digestive system makes it difficult to absorb the nutrients we need and starts to become inflamed
- Our blood pressure remains high, and our arteries start to harden
- We develop neurological conditions such as anxiety and depression from the constant state of hyperstimulation
There are many more examples of problems that can arise when we’re in a state of stress for too long, without effectively winding down and recovering.
Therefore, learning to use tools such as CBD oil, along with some other useful techniques that we’ll get into detail about later, are going to go a long way in helping us stop the constant state of stress, give our body’s time to recover, and ultimately avoid the long list of negative impacts stress has on the body.
Now let’s discuss CBD and the role it plays in the stress response.
What Exactly is CBD?
CBD is short for cannabidiol.
It’s one of the primary constituents in the cannabis plant and is the main non-psychoactive cannabinoid in the plant.
Once inside the body, CBD is able to interact with a special set of receptors known collectively as the endocannabinoid system. This system plays an important role in modulating the nervous system by boosting communication from one cell to the next.
The Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is sort of like the read receipts for the nerves.
When one nerve sends a signal to the next, the endocannabinoid system goes in the opposite direction to tell the original sender that the message arrived.
This may seem like it’s not that important, but this has serious implications.
The endocannabinoid system effectively provides feedback to other areas of the body to dial in communication channels. It makes sure everything functions within their limits, keeping the body as a whole in balance.
The easiest way to understand this is to think about balance.
The body always strives to maintain the balance of all its systems (homeostasis). It doesn’t want to be too hot or too cold, too dry or too moist, too awake or too sleepy. There’s always a balance the body strives to maintain, which of course can fluctuate throughout the day.
The endocannabinoid system essentially regulates this balance and makes sure we stay within the limits at all times. If we are not, it works to bring us back towards the centerline by helping the body communicate and work together.
This is very important to consider because when we’re stressed, we’re not in balance.
Using CBD Oil for Stress
So how exactly does CBD help with stress you ask?
In total, the effects of CBD on stress include:
- Improves hypothalamic function
- Protects the body from oxidative damage
- Promotes “rest and digest”
Let me explain this further.
As we’ve already gone over, stress relies on the hypothalamus in the brain, which then triggers the release of a hormone called cortisol. This hormone then goes on to tell the rest of the body to prepare for battle.
A logical place to start with stopping or slowing the stress response is with the hypothalamus.
1. CBD & The Hypothalamus
This specialized region of the brain has a series of receptors on its surface that scan the blood for cortisol levels.
Normally, when there is an influx of cortisol in the blood, these receptors respond by feeding back to the adrenal glands to stop producing stress hormones.
When we’re chronically stressed, the hypothalamus becomes less sensitive to cortisol, meaning that we need much more cortisol to elicit the same response. This effectively allows us to remain stressed for long periods.
CBD boosts the hypothalamus’ ability to sense cortisol, triggering the shut-off valve much sooner and preventing stress from lingering for too long .
2. CBD & Oxidative Damage
One of the main ways stress causes so much destruction is through something called oxidative damage.
Higher blood sugar and increased metabolic activity stress causes can lead to a buildup of free radical products which can damage tissues all over the body.
Normally this is cleared up when we enter the rest and digest mode in a state of relaxation, but of course, when we’re stressed for long periods of time these free radicals persist.
CBD oil is high in antioxidant compounds  that help neutralize free radical molecules and protects the body from their damaging influence.
3. CBD for Rest & Digest
When we’re stressed, cortisol causes norepinephrine to take control inside of the brain. This leads to the involvement of other stimulating neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate.
It causes us to enter a state of fight or flight where brain activity increases dramatically.
The opposing force to this system is another neurotransmitter called GABA.
We need GABA to act as the brake pedals in the brain, telling it to slow down and relax. This is one of the primary neurotransmitters involved with the “rest and digest” nervous system and holds the key to turning down the stress response.
Many of the best anti-anxiety medications work by boosting GABA activity in the brain to essentially slow us down, and help us relax.
In a recent animal study, some mice were given a compound that blocked GABA, and this caused them to go into hyperactive seizures. CBD was found to completely inhibit these effects, suggesting its ability to regulate GABA and promote relaxation even under direct chemical exposure to GABA inhibiting drugs [4,7].
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