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Can Cannabidiol Help You Become Stress Free?


1. Stress and Stress Relief
     1.1 What is Stress?
     1.2 Is All Stress Bad?
     1.3 But What About Long-Term Stress?
     1.4 And Stress's Effect on the Brain?
2. It's Not All Bad News...
     2.1 The Relaxation Response (RR) 
     2.2 Physical Activity
     2.3 Intermittent Energy Restriction (IER)
3. In Conclusion—NIMH-Inspired List for Effectively Dealing with Stress


Stress and Stress Relief

Why do we practice meditation, etc.?

Most people engage in relaxation practices because they're effective ways to deal with the daily demands of life. These demands most often give rise to stress, anxiety, and tension, which techniques like meditation, yoga, and mindfulness can address very well.

Let's quickly unpack the definition of stress, plus what we need to know about this modern-day plight before proceeding to look at remedies.

Most people engage in yoga and meditation because they're effective ways to deal with the daily demands of life.

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What is Stress?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, simply calls stress this: [1]

Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Any type of challenge—such as performance at work or school, a significant life change, or a traumatic event—can be stressful.

The authors go on to note that everyone experiences stress, and that all types can become harmful physically and mentally. The types are defined as:

  • Routine stress, which is related to the everyday pressures of life.
  • Stress caused by a sudden negative life change, such as losing a job, a divorce, or an illness.
  • Traumatic stress experienced because of an event, such as a big car accident, war, assault, or a natural disaster where people face life-threatening danger.

Stress is how the brain and body respond to any type of challenge.

Is All Stress Bad?

We're also reminded that not all stress is negative, though. For instance, when we experience something stressful, our bodies respond with a quickening pulse, tense muscles, faster breathing, and a brain that increases in its activity and oxygen consumption. 

Yet if you think about it, you'll recognize these physiological responses as typical of those we also experience when, for instance, we're nervous about going on a new date! Or those butterflies before a big competition, or even when we're watching a scary movie.

All these physical functions are aimed at survival, even when the threat is not real.

"Good stress," though, can be a motivator to avoid certain outcomes, such as inspiring us to prepare thoroughly for a test or a job interview. In this way, then, it still serves as a means to survive, albeit in the modern world and specifically the urban jungle.

Is All Stress Bad?

But What about Long-Term Stress?

Health problems sneak in when traumatic stress goes completely unaddressed, or when even good stress becomes chronic and unrelenting. Explains the NIMH:

Because the source of long-term stress is more constant than acute stress, the body never receives a clear signal to return to normal functioning. With chronic stress, those same lifesaving reactions in the body can disturb the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. Some people may experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability.

Chronic stress may lead to digestive symptoms, headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability.

And Stress's Effects on the Brain?

Before we answer this question, let's first understand what goes on in the brain when a stress response is triggered.

Harvard Health explains: [2]

If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. The body thus stays revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system — the "brake" — then dampens the stress response.

As you can guess, the problems start when the "brake" doesn't reduce the stress response and its effects. Even chronic low-level stress that's not posing an immediate, dramatic threat can decrease the parasympathetic nervous system's response. Over time, this can cause all sorts of issues, both mental and physical.

Let's understand what goes on in the brain when a stress response is triggered.

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Because, says Touro, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. And it's a known fact that too much cortisol can affect brain function adversely. 

Research has shown that chronic stress can disrupt synapse regulation in the brain, which can cause behavioral changes like loss of sociability and avoiding interaction with other people.

Chronic stress furthermore kills off brain cells and thus reduces the size of the brain. Scientists also now know that it specifically shrinks the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of your brain responsible for memory and learning. 

In contrast, it seems to increase the size of the amygdala at the center of your brain, which can render your neurology more receptive to stress. This then becomes a rather evil cycle that is continuously perpetuated because we become addicted to our stress fixes.[3]

As Christopher Bergland, writing for Psychology Today, elaborates: [4]

Cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight.

Chronic stress kills off brain cells and thus reduces the size of the brain.

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It's Not All Bad News...

Plasticity—or neuroplasticity—refers to the ways that neural pathways are able to form again in the brain, says Rebecca Bernstein, writing for Touro. She continues to explain: 

It’s true that neural pathways can get severely damaged due to constant exposure to stress, but such changes don't have to be permanent. While stress can negatively affect the brain, the brain and body can recover.

 Research suggests that especially young adults are able to recover easily from the effects of stress, according to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Age and the reversibility of stress-related damage are directly correlated, they say. It’s much more difficult for older adults to regain or create new neural pathways than for younger people.

But not all hope is lost for older people. Research suggests a few approaches that affect neurologic change. These could be practiced and potentially help people of all ages. With most of these approaches, cannabidiol can be an excellent adjacent.

Age and the reversibility of stress-related damage are directly correlated.

The Relaxation Response (RR)

Prof. Herbert Benson is the Director Emeritus at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. A pioneer in body-mind medicine, this erstwhile cardiologist devoted his long career to integrating medicine, healing, and spirituality. Four decades ago, he started studying stress in a group of subjects.

For alternating periods (Benson) had (the subjects) meditate and then think normally, while clinically measuring their metabolism and carbon dioxide elimination, their rate of breathing and their brain waves. Benson and his team discovered dramatic physiological changes that occurred when they changed their thoughts. During the meditative thinking period, their body metabolism decreased, as did carbon dioxide elimination, and their brain waves changed to the relaxing theta waves.

His interest was piqued, and after more clinical trials, he named the mind-body effect the “relaxation response.” This, according to Margaret Emory writing for Brainworld, describes physiological changes such as a decrease in metabolism, respiratory rate, and heart rate that occur during states of relaxation. 

The results of longitudinal studies into the effects of RR activities were telling. Not only do techniques like meditation, breathwork, and yoga impact the brain, metabolism, heart health, etc.—these even affect the expression of genes. 

Not only do techniques like meditation, breathwork, and yoga impact the brain, metabolism, heart health, etc.—these even affect the expression of genes.

Benson related some findings in his interview with Emory:

A cross-sectional study of long-term practitioners of RR who had been eliciting it on a daily basis for an average of seven years were matched with controls of same age, gender, education, and race who had never evoked the RR. The blood cells from whole blood measured the genetic activity. It was found that in the long-term practitioners, the genes that controlled metabolism, stress, aging of the body were activated. Genes that were controlling the immune system and inflammation systems of the body were quieted down. There was little change in the control group. [5]

How Can CBD Help?

It's not easy to meditate when you're overly anxious. Taking a few drops of CBD could be the aid of choice before folding your legs on a meditation rug. This cannabinoid has shown anxiolytic effects even in subjects with severe anxiety disorders. [6]

Clinical data is somewhat lacking, but cannabidiol did induce neurogenesis (the process whereby neural stem cells produce nervous system cells) in the adult hippocampus of laboratory mice. This had an anxiolytic effect in itself. [7]

This suggests that the chronically stressed brain can potentially be supported not only by certain RR practices but also by taking CBD.

Taking a few drops of CBD could be the aid of choice before folding your legs on a meditation rug.

Physical Activity

The buildup of stress can be avoided successfully with exercise and movement therapies such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. These all combine movements and techniques that induce the aforementioned RR effect. 

Exercises that increase heart rate will improve breathing, too, as well as supplying stressed, tight muscles with oxygen. Strenuous physical activity also releases endorphins and endocannabinoids known to cause a mood lift—probably the reason for the famous "runner's high."

The buildup of stress can be avoided successfully with exercise.

How Can CBD Help?

It's also a fact that CBD is increasingly becoming exercise junkies' gym buddy of choice, mainly because of its relaxing, pain-relieving, and anti-inflammatory action. 

According to a recent review of the data, CBD demonstrated a diversified mode of action for alleviating inflammation by reducing mediators of the inflammatory process, as well as diminishing overactivity of certain pro-inflammatory enzymes.[8]

Intermittent Energy Restriction (IER)

As the name suggests, this involves intermittently restricting calorie or energy intake. (The other, more popular term is intermittent fasting.) 

At first, this diet was found to be a very effective, sustainable way to lose and keep down bodyweight. Recent research suggests enormous implications for brain health, too, because it also appears to promote synaptic plasticity, neurogenesis, recovery after stroke and traumatic brain injury, and decreases risks of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. It has also been shown to improve mood disorders such as depression. [9]

Intermittent Fasting has been shown to improve mood disorders and have enormous implications for brain health too.

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How Can CBD Help?

For the aforementioned reasons alone, CBD could be a companion of choice for busting stress. It’s also good for improving calming practices such as meditation, yoga, and so forth.

But users often confuse CBD with marijuana, which is notorious for its appetite-inducing qualities. (Weed is well known for causing uncontrollable munchies.) Yet this effect is not due to cannabidiol, also a compound of cannabis. Another cannabinoid is responsible for the munchies.

Also, preclinical studies demonstrated CBD's action against adipose tissue, commonly called fat. It seems to stimulate the genes and proteins that break down fat. 

CBD also stimulates mitochondrial activity, which (in theory, at least) can help the body burn fat. 

The cannabinoid furthermore appears to combat lipogenesis, or the generation of fat cells. It does so by inhibiting the expression of proteins involved in lipogenesis. [10]

CBD could be a companion of choice for busting stress.

In Conclusion—Your NIMH-inspired List for Dealing Effectively with Stress

To conclude, here is a compilation of the above at your fingertips. 

Your NIMH-inspired List for Dealing Effectively with Stress

  • Get regular exercise. Never dismiss the efficacy of taking a brisk walk shortly after feeling stressed. As mentioned, this will not only improve breathing and oxygenate your system, but also assist with relieving muscle tension. 
  • Try a relaxing activity. Also explore relaxation or wellness programs, which may incorporate muscle relaxation and/or breathing exercises such as yoga or meditation. Make sure to stick with these so they become habits rather than just one-off activities.
  • Set goals and priorities. Organize your life by deciding to focus on priorities, and let go of the rest. Also learn the magic of the word "No." You don't have to be everything for everyone. At the end of each day, engage in some positive self-talk, and congratulate yourself for what you have accomplished. Become your own biggest fan this way—because, as one well-known health guru says: "Energy flows where attention goes."
  • Stay connected. You are not alone. If you're feeling overwhelmed, keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. Also, don't be afraid or shy to ask for help from friends, family, community, or religious organizations.
  • Watch your diet: As mentioned, it's not only good for your weight loss (and self-image!), but eating less is good for mood regulation, too. Also, avoid stress-inducing food such as refined sugars and too much caffeine. 
  • Consider a clinical trial. From the NIMH site: Researchers at the NIMH and other research facilities across the country are studying the causes and effects of psychological stress as well as stress management techniques. You can learn more about studies that are recruiting by visiting Join a Study or ClinicalTrials.gov (keyword: stress).


  1. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml
  2. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
  3. https://www.tuw.edu/health/how-stress-affects-the-brain/
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/the-athletes-way/201402/chronic-stress-can-damage-brain-structure-and-connectivity
  5. https://brainworldmagazine.com/tracking-mind-body-connection-interview-dr-herbert-benson/
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128007563000971
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23298518
  8. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272373349_Cannabidiol_CBD_and_its_analogs_A_review_of_their_effects_on_inflammation#pf8
  9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165178112008153
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27067870

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