by Patricia C Frye, M.D.
Tis the season to be jolly, but this time of year often brings more than good cheer. Shopping for the perfect gifts, finances stretched to the limit, travel, having houseguests, being a houseguest and other obligations of the season, while often enjoyable, can cause mental stress that can be detrimental to the body if allowed to continue over an extended period. This time of year can also bring sadness to those who are unable to be with family or bring to mind the absence of loved ones who are no longer with us. Economic conditions, familial dysfunction, high-pressure jobs, being a caregiver for a loved one or our own chronic illness can cause a stress response year-round.
The stress reaction is essential for survival. It is via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that we are able to react to a dangerous or threatening situation. It is what was required for our caveman ancestors to escape the fangs of the saber-toothed tiger. The physiological response to stress, however, is remarkably similar regardless of the cause. When stressful conditions continue over an extended period, it is as if we are faced with dealing with that saber-toothed tiger, day after day.
Stress causes a chain reaction of chemical and hormonal signaling that begins in the hypothalamus, and puts the body on “full alert”. The hypothalamus sends neurotransmitters to the pituitary gland, which in turn, sends signals to the adrenal gland to release “stress hormones”. In this cascade of events, respirations, blood pressure and heart rate increase. Blood is diverted away from the digestive tract, and is sent to the arms and legs where it is needed to fight or run away from danger. Glucocorticoids are released from the adrenal glands that increase blood sugar levels to provide fuel to the muscles that need energy for running and fighting.
The stress response is adaptive, or a positive condition, when it sends us into a fright-flight state necessary to escape danger. Once there is no longer a threat, it’s important that we return to a state of balance, because being in a chronically stressed state can wreak havoc on our bodies.
Elevated blood sugar levels can damage the eyes, heart, kidneys and nervous system. Focus and memory are impaired; there are alterations in thyroid function and sleep, and the body’s ability to fight infection is adversely effected. Thus, when the stress response is prolonged, it causes a number of physiological problems that can literally make us sick.
Yoga, meditation, exercise and biofeedback are often effective ways of managing or reducing stress. When these methods are not enough, medical cannabis may be beneficial to some patients.
Our bodies have an endocannabinoid system that promotes balance, or homeostasis. The receptors in this system are activated by substances that we make in our bodies called endocannabinoids. These receptors are also activated by phytocannabinoids, which are produced by the cannabis plant. THC and CBD are the most well-known phytocannbinoids.
Animal studies have shown that endocannabinoid signaling is involved in the regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) stress response. When stress causes an increase in the secretion of stress hormones, a feedback mechanism stimulates the release of endocannabinoids, which shut down the release of these stress-related neurotransmitters and hormones.
A recent double-blind study at the University of Illinois College of Medicine found that patients treated with low levels of THC experienced a greater reduction in stress than patients who received placebo or high doses of THC.
Medical cannabis, with CBD and/or low dose THC, has been reported by many patients to alleviate stress. In addition to interrupting the stress response, cannabis elevates the mood, regulates glucose metabolism and promotes restorative sleep. Cannabis has a very high safety profile, is generally very well-tolerated when used in small doses, and is without the depressive effects associated with benzodiazepines and alcohol.
Medical cannabis is now available to Maryland residents. Patients have to first register with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission at Mmcc.Maryland.gov. Registration is confidential and HIPAA compliant. The commission will issue a patient number that is needed by the patient’s healthcare provider to complete the certification. If the patient’s primary or specialty care provider is not registered with the commission, there are doctors who specialize in cannabis medicine who may be able to help. Once certified, the patient can purchase medical cannabis at one of the licensed dispensaries in the state. Currently there are nine dispensaries with new ones opening over the next few months.
So if life, or pressure from the holidays, is stressing you out, consider low-dose medical cannabis as a possible way of getting things back in balance.
Patricia C. Frye, M.D., is certified in Cannabis Science and Medicine, is a Diplomat of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians and is the founder of Takoma Alternative Care, located at 6930 Carroll Ave., Ste. 502, Takoma Park, MD. For more information, call 301-328-3045 or visit TakomaCare.com.