As an American living in today’s society, we can pretty safely say that the stress load we now carry around with us in our daily lives is more than what our body was originally equipped to handle day in and day out.  We hear about stress.  We talk about stress.  We see reports of how stress is killing us.  But what kind of an impact is all of it really having on creating a shift and manifesting the changes you need in your life?

My hope is this article can awaken a deeper understanding and provoke positive action for you and for the masses. 

When I first started researching the Endocannabinoid System (ECS), as a chiropractor I followed the trail of pain and inflammation … which then led me straight into hormones and immune system … and one day I landed on the connection to STRESS that pulled so much of all of this together for me.  

So let’s talk basics of THE STRESS RESPONSE, first. 

Stress is an interesting beast … because the majority of it is really based on OUR PERCEPTION of our environment.  If we believe something to be stressful or scary or dangerous, a series of actions and reactions immediately begins.

Our blood pressure rises.  Our heart rate speeds up.  Survival breathing kicks in.  Our pupils get bigger so we can hopefully see more of the impeding danger around us. Energy to our digestive system is diverted and sent to our muscles and tissues that are engaged when we are fleeing or fighting for our lives. Sorry to say this folks, but sex isn’t an immediate survival priority so the hormones that support those areas are told to take a back seat while cortisol and other hormones and chemicals flood the body to initiate “battle mode” in order to keep you alive RIGHT NOW. 

Your body cares less about what’s best for you 5 years from now and definitely isn’t terribly concerned with 50 years from now when it is in “fight or flight” STRESS MODE. 

The glands that are most often associated with the stress response is the ADRENAL GLANDS.  We have two. They are the size of walnuts … and they sit on top of the kidneys.

You’ve likely heard of adrenaline?  It gets its name from the adrenals and is associated with the stress response that happens when the brain sends signals from the hypothalamus to the pituitary which in turn activates the adrenal glands. 

This is called the HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis). 

The ECS has long been known to regulate the HPA axis.  The ECS regulates basal and circadian HPA axis activation.  For example, the hypothalamic content of anandamide is highest at 7am and 11am and lowest between 3pm and 3am. 

In a properly functioning ECS, we learn from stressful experiences and modify the chemical messages associated with the stress response.  The ECS will increase cannabinoid production and the adrenal glands will actually decrease production of cortisol (often called “the stress hormone”). 

How clever!  And helpful … because ongoing elevated levels of cortisol can cause all sorts of other problems like high blood pressure, blood sugar and metabolism issues, inflammation, and so many more.  This is great news if you are searching for non-pharmaceutical options to these problems – maybe your ECS is dysfunctioning due to chronic stress!?

The critical role of the ECS in our survival and ability to respond and adapt to life’s stress is deeply rooted which would explain why we see the ECS forming and developing in the earliest stages of embryonic development and throughout pre- and postnatal development. Childbirth is clearly a stressful situation and a healthy, functioning ECS is critical to the baby’s ability to handle the intensity of birth. 

Assuming that you survived infancy, you may want to know how all this impacts you now. 

Today is different than caveman days.  The stressful event would take place but it wouldn’t last all day, every day and in every way.  Most of us now encounter CHRONIC, ongoing stress.

Chronic stress causes down-regulation of CB1 receptors.  These changes occur throughout the brain which results in a nasty on-going cycle because properly functioning receptors is critical to a healthy stress response.  You now enter the safety pin cycle.  Round and round you go ….

until …

someone or something unlocks the cycle. 

The ECS holds the potential to suppress the activity of the HPA pathway through distinct actions within the brain (primarily the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus) when necessary – like in the case of chronic, ongoing perceived stress!

Let me give you one example …

Research has found links with a dysfunctional HPA axis and patients with IBS, which does not have many safe and effective pharmaceutical answers yet. Patients with IBS that are having positive benefits from phytocannabinoid sources like hemp are growing daily.  The ability to increase cannabinoid counts is breaking the ongoing inflammation, pain and dysregulation cycle for these patients. 

It appears the ECS is sensitive to early-life stress.  Ironically, early-life stress is an important factor in the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and is associated with epigenetic changes that lead to increased sensitivity to the visceral organs.

Ironically, migraines and fibromyalgia are also mixed into this same bucket.  In a previous article, we talked about the amazing links researchers are finding with the ECS and IBS, migraines and fibromyalgia.

So, if we can activate the potential of the ECS by increasing cannabinoid levels, the ECS would in turn be able to suppress the overactive pathways of the HPA axis that are firing on all cylinders during that chronic stress “safety pin cycle”.  Remember, a healthy ECS will learn from and adapt to stressful situations by increasing cannabinoid levels and decreasing cortisol levels. 

CANNABINOIDS ARE THE KEY to break the cycle! 

When the ECS is working efficiently, it helps better your ability to respond to and adapt to stress. The better your ability to respond to and adapt to stress, the better off you are.  The more function you have.  The more life you can express.   

I don’t know about you, but I could use more of that in my life.  None of us are exempt from the tax of stress … but a fully fueled ECS can definitely lessen the tole.