Dr. David Pompei, PharmD, MS
Our modern world is full of stress: traffic jams, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, a presentation at work. Stress is anything that increases emotional or physical tension. Treating stress like it doesn't exist is a surefire way to get burnt out. We must develop effective stress management strategies to maintain our mental health and well-being when facing stress inducing situations on a daily basis.
People have come up with various ways of managing stress. Some people like to listen to calming music, take deep breaths, and drink lavender tea. Others prefer stress reduction techniques involving meditation, yoga, or tai chi.
Some people like to counter bad stress with good stress by vigorously exercising, sweating in the sauna, or taking a cold shower. Others find the most benefit by just getting out of their head whether that is playing with pets, listening to upbeat music, or cleaning the house. Many people find that a purposeful dose of cannabis or CBD provides them with natural stress relief on demand. Let's find out: does weed help with stress?
It could be a college kid smoking a joint after a busy week of midterms, a drained sales rep buccally ingesting a CBD lozenge after a long workday, or a mother who makes the most out of an afternoon without the kids by eating an edible and treating herself to a home facial.
Jointly can help you find out which cannabis or CBD products to add to your stress relief toolkit, but first let’s review what is known about cannabis and stress. Please note that while cannabis and CBD may be used in medical contexts, this article is about using cannabis and CBD to manage minor day-to-day stress and anxiety and is not about the treatment of any stress or anxiety disorder. Please consult your licensed health care practitioner before making any changes to your lifestyle or routine.
Stress refers to “emotional pressure suffered by a human being or other animal.” Given that humans have used cannabis since ancient times, it is likely that many ancient cultures knew of the stress relieving effects of weed. However, there is not much in the historical record about using cannabis to relieve stress because the notion of stress did not really emerge in its modern form until the early 1900s.
While the concept of stress was still evolving in the 1800s, there is some evidence that cannabis was prescribed as a stress-reliever during this era. At the time, people were regularly prescribed morphine and laudanum to treat “nervousness,” which was a vague, catch-all ailment that overlaps with modern chronic fatigue syndrome. At least one medical textbook from the era recommends cannabis over the use of morphine to treat nervousness, so there is some historical evidence that people used cannabis to lower stress.
While the historical record is limited, many people today believe that weed is a powerful natural stress reliever. According to a recent study, many Americans turned to cannabis during the pandemic to relieve stress and improve their mood. The most common reason they listed for using cannabis was “to relieve mental stress.” So, is weed good for relieving minor stress and anxiety?
Many people find that exercise or social interaction are the most effective stress reduction strategies. Social interaction reliably increases endocannabinoid levels, decreases ratings of stress, and produces positive emotions. Exercise also bolsters the body’s endocannabinoid levels, which produces the euphoric “runner’s high.” There are many reasons why these activities are so great at relieving stress, but an important aspect of both activities is that they increase endocannabinoid tone.
When you consume cannabis, your brain is flooded with exogenous cannabinoids that bind to the same receptors that endocannabinoids do, producing potent stress relief on demand. Cannabis users generally report that using marijuana gives them “a feeling of euphoria accompanied by a decrease in anxiety and an increase in sociability,” all of which are likely to decrease the perception of stress.
So, how effective is marijuana at relieving stress? A recent study had cannabis users rate their self-perceived stress levels before and after consuming cannabis in the comfort of their own homes. Over 93% of recorded cannabis sessions resulted in significant stress relief. However, baseline stress levels did not decrease with marijuana use. Given that cannabis use can acutely decrease stress, does chronic marijuana use alter the stress response in long-term users?
Chronic cannabis users are often depicted in pop culture as being sedated and worry-free. Recent research indicates that long-term cannabis use may dull the stress response, adding some weight to this idea.
Researchers selected a group of chronic cannabis users (daily or near daily use over the last year) and people who did not use cannabis (less than 10 uses over a lifetime and none within the last year). They subjected the participants to a well-recognized procedure to induce an acute stress response.
The chronic cannabis and cannabis naïve groups were randomly assigned to experience a high-stress or no-stress version of the same acute stress test. In the no-stress version, participants submerged their hand in lukewarm water for 45-90 seconds and were asked to count from 1 to 25. In the high-stress version, participants placed their hands in ice cold water for 45-90 seconds, they were asked to count backwards from 2043 by 17, and they were scolded when they made a mistake. On top of this, participants were filmed and were made to watch a screen displaying their face as they engaged in the stress test. Before and after the stress test, all participants had their salivary cortisol levels taken.
Remarkably, the researchers found that cannabis users had virtually the same levels of cortisol regardless of whether they had been subjected to the high-stress test or the no-stress test. In contrast, cannabis naïve participants had dramatically increased cortisol levels in the high-stress test compared to the no-stress test. Additionally, in the high-stress test, cannabis users had significantly lower ratings of subjective stress compared to cannabis naïve participants. This study suggests that long term cannabis use may blunt stress reactivity. However, “further research is needed to determine whether this helps to confer resiliency or vulnerability to stress.”
In general, the stress response is an adaptive response that benefits an organism. The release of cortisol allows an individual to mobilize energy stores and respond appropriately to a threat, thus “an inability to mount a proper hormonal response to stress could have detrimental effects that could potentially be harmful to the individual.” The researchers intend to study whether the presence of residual THC influences the muted stress response in cannabis users.
In scientific studies, stress is “an alteration of homeostasis as a consequence of external or internal threats.” These threats could be anything from an upcoming event that causes mild anxiety, to jetlag, to a stressful social interaction.
The emerging field of psychoneuroendocrinology explores the interactions between emotional or mental states, immune function, neural function, and endocrine function. Researchers have found that even minor psychological stress like sitting in traffic can trigger processes that alter your hormones, neurotransmitters, mood, and immune function.
The endocannabinoid system (eCB) “represents a microcosm of psychoneuroimmunology or mind-body medicine” because it plays a homeostatic role in “relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect” processes. When an organism is exposed to a stressful stimulus, “immediate and protracted neuroendocrine responses with protective effects” occur involving the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This process triggers the release of stress hormones and increases blood pressure and heart rate. Essentially, the body produces an adaptive, defensive response to stress. The eCB is present in the HPA axis and “plays a crucial role in regulating stress responses.”
Like with endogenous pain modulation, the eCB plays a crucial role in modulating an organism’s emotional and physiological response to stress. The eCB is “a neuromodulatory lipid system, which consists of the cannabinoid receptor type 1 and type 2 (CB1 and CB2 respectively) and the two major endogenous ligands,” anandamide (AEA) and 2-AG, that bind to them. Receptors and ligands are like locks and keys. When a ligand binds with a receptor, it “produces a signal” or a change inside the cell.
Researchers have found that stress acutely affects endocannabinoid levels. Specifically, exposure to stress decreases levels of AEA and increases levels of 2-AG. Studies have shown that “the decline in AEA appears to contribute to the manifestation of the stress response, including activation of the [HPA] axis and increase in anxiety behavior, while increased 2-AG signaling contributes to termination and adaption of the HPA axis, as well as potentially contributing to changes in pain perception, memory and synaptic plasticity.”
In other words, when you first experience stress, your body reduces levels of AEA, which triggers the feeling of “stress.” At the same time, your body increases levels of 2-AG, which dampens your perception of pain and activates “memory that helps you avoid the situation and escape danger in the future.” Researchers have established that increasing the levels of AEA by inhibiting the enzyme (FAAH) that degrades this endocannabinoid “can significantly attenuate behavioral indices of fear and anxiety-related behavior in rodents.” They hypothesize that AEA doesn’t produce direct stress-relieving effects, but rather acts to restore homeostasis after a stressful challenge.
Scientists have repeatedly shown that chronic stress can alter endocannabinoid signaling. Over a long period of time, sustained overactivation of the stress pathways leads to downregulation of CB1 receptors. Animals with reduced CB1 receptor availability display depressive and anxious behaviors.
For example, “chronic unpredictable stressors have been shown to impair 2-AG signaling.” It is thought that “chronic stress creates a hypocannabinergic state resulting in impaired fear extinction that can be alleviated by CB1R agonists.” THC is a CB1 receptor agonist, so one of the effects of THC is that it could temporarily alleviate the hypocannabinergic state caused by excessive stress.
To understand why cannabis has such a potent stress-relieving effect, we need to understand how THC affects the brain. As we mentioned, THC binds to CB1 receptors in the brain. CB1 receptors are primarily localized on axon terminals. An axon terminal is “a long, slender projection” of a neuron that conducts electrical impulses (action potentials) away from the neuron’s body to transmit those impulses to other neurons, muscle cells, or glands. Axon terminals are separated from other neurons by a small gap called a synapse, across which impulses are sent.
CB1 receptors are primarily localized on axon terminals, and “activation of these receptors results in a robust suppression of neurotransmitter release into the synapse.” Within the brain, CB1 receptors are expressed on GABAergic, glutamatergic, serotonergic, noradrenergic, and dopaminergic terminals, but “the predominant effects of eCB signaling occur at GABAergic and glutamatergic synapses.” Activating CB1 receptors on GABAergic and glutamatergic neurons decreases their transmission.
Glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter and GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, and “the equilibrium between GABAergic and glutamatergic transmission provides an appropriate emotional reactivity.”
When an organism is exposed to stress, “the glutamatergic tone increases, producing an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory transmission.” To restore homeostasis, CB1 receptors in GABAergic terminals are downregulated, which increases GABAergic transmission.
CB1 receptors are widely expressed on GABAergic neurons and, to a lesser extent, on glutamatergic neurons. This reality may explain why cannabis has biphasic effects, reducing stress and anxiety in low doses, and increasing stress and anxiety in high doses.
Scientists have proposed that “low THC doses…act preferentially on glutamatergic neurons, whereas high THC doses have been proposed to act also at GABAergic neurons.” In other words, when CB1 receptors on glutamatergic neurons are activated by THC, glutamatergic transmission is lowered, decreasing the excitatory inputs.
A high dose of THC may trigger the opposite effect, binding to CB1 receptors on GABAergic neurons, which decreases the inhibitory inputs and tilts you towards a more excitatory state. That is why a low dose of THC is more likely to be stress relieving than a high dose.
One of the most popular ways to de-stress or stay stress free is to use full-spectrum CBD or isolate CBD to relieve mild anxiety and stress. Please note that CBD is not an FDA approved treatment for stress and anxiety disorders and we are discussing using CBD to improve your general wellbeing. How does CBD relieve stress and anxiety?
Research has shown that CBD can affect the serotonin system and the endocannabinoid system in ways that may promote stress-relief. Animal studies indicate that CBD appears to have anxiety reducing effects in a variety of experimental designs.
Many people find that a purposeful dose of CBD is one of the best ways to reduce stress in their daily lives. If you want to learn how to take CBD to relieve anxiety and stress, check out our article What is the Best Product Type for Your Wellness Goals?
If you have been inspired to add cannabis to your stress relief toolkit, you might be wondering what is the best marijuana strain to relieve anxiety and stress? Many people wonder if it is better to use Indica or Sativa for stress. Maybe you want an Indica dominant strain to sedate you, or a Sativa dominant strain to give you a burst of playful energy.
Whether you should choose Indica or Sativa for stress depends on your unique physiology as well as your personal experience with different types of cannabis products. If you search online for the best weed strains for stress relief, you will find recommendations about Girl Scout Cookies, or Granddaddy Purple, or OG Kush—potent, high-THC strains that have a significant psychoactive effect. As you can see, you can find recommendations for both Indica or Sativa for stress relief. But before you choose your stress-blasting weed strain, we encourage you to look at our article Why Jointly is Better than a Strain Finder? In that article, you will learn what strain names really mean, how to find the best stress-relieving weed strains, and how to use Jointly to discover the most effective products in your area.
For many people, cannabis and CBD are highly effective stress relievers. If you want to see if cannabis or CBD can help you relieve everyday stress, use the Jointly app to track and optimize the 15 factors that can impact your experience. These 15 factors include your dose, the environment in which you consume cannabis, who you are with when you ingest, how hydrated you are, the quality of your diet, how much sleep you got last night, and more. Jointly is a cannabis wellness platform that helps you achieve your wellness goals with cannabis and CBD. Perhaps you will discover that you experience the most stress relief with cannabis when you eat a 1:1 gummy while drinking a cup of tea or consuming another one of your favorite companion foods.
Our data indicates that Jointly works best when you report at least 10 cannabis sessions. If you only fill out a few reports and then stop, you won’t have enough data to start to see trends and improve how you consume cannabis. When you use Jointly, you are rating how well a product helped you achieve your wellness goals. Over time, your average ratings should go up as you optimize how you consume cannabis and CBD. Use the Results Tracker feature to make sure your results are improving over time.
Looking for products that can help keep you fresh and energized when facing a stressful day? Brands and manufacturers have designed a vast range of legal cannabis and CBD products for this exact purpose: lavender and chamomile infused CBD gummies, vape pens infused with myrcene (coming in various levels of THC), moonrocks for a super-potent stress buster, THC bath bombs and more. But how do you know if these products actually work?
Jointly is a cannabis discovery app that makes it easy to find and match with the best cannabis and CBD products for your goals. Your matches are calculated from the real product ratings and experiences of hundreds of thousands of people using the Jointly app.
With Jointly, match with top-rated products, and build lists of your favorites to save, share, and bring to your local dispensary to help guide your shopping experience.
Jointly also helps you track your cannabis experiences through reflections that help you understand what’s working, and what’s not. In fact, the quality of your diet, how much you slept, who you’re with, and the time of day are just some of the factors that can impact your experiences.