Holistic Medicine Part 5b: Feeding the ECS – Lifestyle

July 2022 by Sandy Yanez

In the last segment of holistic medicine, we started looking into lifestyles and how everyday foods and exercise impact our ECS. Here we will continue with lifestyles by looking at how stress affects our health and wellbeing. 

Stress, the silent killer

Stress is any change in the environment that requires your body to react and adjust in response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. 

Stress is a part of life and in some cases is a good thing. It can be helpful when it is a source of motivation in everyday situations, such as completing a project or taking a test. Stress causes a release of epinephrine that makes it easier to do tasks and enhances performance and problem-solving skills. This surge of epinephrine assists the body to deal with a threat or run for safety (think fight or flight). 

However, research shows that when stress becomes long-term, it can negatively affect every system in the body. Over time stress can weigh you down more than you may realize. Chronic stress can become debilitating and can increase the risk of serious health complications, such as obesity, depression, and heart disease. 

Stress also becomes harmful when people use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to try to relieve their stress. Unfortunately, instead of relieving the stress and returning the body to a relaxed state, these substances tend to keep the body in a stressed state and cause more problems.

Chronic stress changes endocannabinoid signaling and leads to neuroplastic changes and imbalances between inhibitory (stopping) and excitatory (activating) neurons (cells). Chronic stress also decreases anandamide (the bliss molecule) and increases FAAH (breaks down anandamide) 24 hours after the stress exposure. So, you can see how chronic stress has an ongoing delayed effect on your mood, which can lead to chronic depression. 

Here is a brief look at how stress can impact your body:

  • Headaches – When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to remain in a tense state, which can trigger tension headaches and or migraines. About 70% of people who experience migraine headaches report
    stress as the trigger.
  • Musculoskeletal system – Chronic muscular tension may develop into chronic pain, such as low back pain, neck, shoulder pain, and body aches.
  • Depression – Research shows stress can contribute to depression and mood disorders. Chronic stress can wear you down emotionally and lead to depression. Emotional symptoms of stress include agitation, frustration, feeling overwhelmed, feeling as if you’re losing control, having a hard time relaxing or quieting your mind, low self-esteem, or worthlessness.
  • Cognitive symptoms – Constant worrying, racing thoughts, inability to focus or concentrate, forgetfulness, disorganization, poor judgment, seeing only the negative.
  • Insomnia – Stress makes it harder to relax and quiet the mind, making it harder to fall or stay asleep. The hypothalamus is one of the key structures involved in the sleep-wake cycle. During stressful experiences, the body activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system. These systems release hormones that stimulate attention and arousal, causing issues with sleep.
  • Digestive system – Stress affects the interactions between the brain and the gut affecting smooth muscle movements, stomach acid secretions, and more that can lead to digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, ulcers, and inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Reproductive system – Stress can affect both male and female libido or sex drive. Affects the production of sperm and may lead to erectile dysfunction. In females, their menstrual cycle can be altered, and chronic stress can lower the chances of becoming pregnant.

The ailments caused by chronic stress are vast and affect every aspect of your body. Chronic stress is called the silent killer for a reason. You can see from the list above how important controlling your stress can be. 

How to control your stress

As it turns out, certain stress management techniques can help you feel less stressed out. 

Yoga is known for being a health-promoting practice. A study demonstrated that yoga, even done short-term, reduced stress and inflammation in patients with chronic disease. 

Exercise is good for our bodies and our stress levels. Walking at a steady pace for 20 minutes helps to clear your head and boost endorphins (happy hormones), which reduces stress hormones. Researchers studied different types of athletes and found that physical activity can work as a buffer against stress and help build overall resilience to stress. 

Laughter is a great stress reliever and can help with stress even before it happens. Chronic stress is correlated with increases in stress hormones cortisol and catecholamines. Research shows that just the thought of laughing can positively affect stress hormones.  

How you perceive things makes a significant difference in how you feel and respond to stress. Look at it this way, is it a threat or a challenge? Researchers found that a key difference in how stressors translate into chronic stress is how we perceive it. If we feel challenged, we often rise to it and feel great after conquering it. Whereas, when we feel threatened, fear becomes the driving force that usually leaves us feeling defeated, withdrawn, or empty. 

Meditation and mindfulness are proven ways to destress. Practicing mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to manage feelings of stress and anxiety and can even be used as a relaxation technique for panic disorder. Meditation can help you slow down racing thoughts, decrease negativity, and calm both your mind and body. 

Gardening or playing in the dirt is known as earthing or grounding and is a major contributor to our physical functioning and wellness. We know that just 15 min of sunlight helps our bodies to produce vitamin D and can boost our moods. So, if you are looking for a boost, head for the garden, go for a walk, or eat lunch outside and enjoy yourself.

Breathing, yes, something as simple as taking a moment to breathe. When you are stressed your breathing tends to be irregular and shallow. Your autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions like heart rate and digestion, is split into two parts. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, controls your fight-or-flight response. The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, controls your rest-and-relax response. Deep breathing can help quiet your sympathetic nervous system and therefore reduce the feelings of stress. How to deep breathe: aim for six breaths per minute, breathe deep from the belly while expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale, and exhale longer than you inhale. Do this a few times and see how relaxed you feel.

Take a deep breathe

Music is an abstract stimulus that aroused feelings of euphoria similar to tangible rewards. In other words, music can stimulate dopamine release. One study demonstrated that listening to music while taking a break reduced the prevalence of stress among front-line nurses. The nurses that listened to music had lower perceived stress levels, lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in their bloodstream, and lower heart rates when compared to nurses who sat and rested during their break.

Cannabis, specifically THC used intermittently in low doses reduces stress, while higher or frequent use generally has the opposite effects. The outcome is based on individual circumstances. Meaning, that some consumers build a “tolerance” quickly and the overuse of cannabis can make depression and anxiety worse in their case. The effects will also be determined based on the type of cannabis consumed. For instance, if you are smoking a stimulating and energizing strain like a Sativa, then you may induce anxiety making your stress worse. Hybrids that are balanced or a light Indica tend to be more relaxing and can allow you to see and or respond to the stressor differently.

CBD is known for its anti-depressive properties via its ability to activate the 5HT1A serotonin receptors (which is thought to have the strongest role in anxiety) and for its ability to give you focus and clear thoughts. One study concluded that CBD has great potential for treating multiple anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety, panic, social, obsessive-compulsive, and post-traumatic disorders. CBD also helps inhibit the breakdown of anandamide (your bliss molecule). By dampening the stress response and protecting against chronic stress, CBD may help prevent or treat certain mental health conditions related to stress.

CBN when taken with THC, myrcene (a terpene known for body relaxation), and or linalool (lavender) may be more useful than CBD on its own for people with sleep issues. For people suffering from PTSD, cannabinoids specifically THC, can reduce the time spent in REM sleep, which can help prevent nightmares.

Terpenes provide the smell of cannabis and affect the way cannabinoids behave, and when cannabinoids and terpenes are combined they give different effects. For example, THC and or CBD with linalool, myrcene, and humulene will be more sleepy with muscle relaxation and pain reduction. Whereas THC and or CBD with pinene, limonene, and caryophyllene, would be lightly stimulating, uplifting, and pain-reducing in their effect.

Terpenes can be taken with or without cannabis. Here are a few that are known for stress, anxiety, or mood enhancement:

  • Limonene – the smell of lemons and citrus. Limonene is known as one of the best terpenes for anxiety and depression and is known to relieve paranoia or restlessness. This terpene works best when used in aromatherapy.
  • Caryophyllene – a cannabinoid and terpene, is a powerful anti-inflammatory, calming in nature, and works with CB2 receptors.
  • Myrcene – the relaxer, known for its muscle relaxing and calming properties, and also has great pain and inflammation-reducing effects.
  • Linalool – the smell of lavender is relaxing and sedating. Best in low doses or as aromatherapy if used as a calming agent for anxiety.

Dosing cannabis edibles for stress and anxiety will depend on the individual and their underlining cause of stress. Good ratios to start would be CBD: THC at a 3:1, 2:1, or 1:1, 3-4 times a day, reevaluating weekly until the lowest dose to control the stressor is obtained.

In the next holistic medicine segment, we will continue with the last part on lifestyle – sleep.


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