CBD and your endocannabinoid system: How it affects stress, anxiety, and pain

CBD, short for cannabidiol, is suddenly a hot commodity. But you may already know that based on the uptick of ads in your Instagram feed and products popping up at major retailers — all praising CBD products and how they can help reduce your pain, improve your sleep, curb your anxiety, and change your life. And well, they’re not wrong, but it’s important to realize that not all CBD products are created equal.

“The research is strong,” says Amanda Carlson-Phillips, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., senior vice president of strategic partnerships and insights at EXOS who heads up nutrition and research efforts. “This plant component has been found to do some pretty incredible things in the body to decrease inflammation and improve cognitive function.”

As EXOS dietitian Shannon Ehrhardt explains on Onnit Academy, your body’s endocannabinoid system helps maintain homeostasis, and CBD helps that system function properly. To fully understand all the ways CBD can improve your daily performance — helping you combat pain, sleep better, and handle stress and anxiety — it’s key to first understand how it works in your body and endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system’s role as a regulator

Ehrhardt explains that our bodies have a tendency to be drama fiends, overreacting when it’s time to issue an inflammatory response. While some level of inflammation protects you, your body can go too far, leading to chronic inflammation over time. Keep in mind that chronic inflammation is associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, cancer, arthritis, and even allergies.

Thankfully, your body’s endocannabinoid system is responsible for preventing an overreaction (and sometimes an underreaction). It advocates for business as usual, helping regulate everything from stress and body temperature to appetite, immunity, and mood — and yes, pain and inflammation. Any outside stressor, including muscle soreness, a fever, and poor sleep, will throw off your body's homeostasis, and your endocannabinoid system should kick in to get it back to baseline.

What’s CBD got to do with it

Your body naturally makes two types of endocannabinoids, but it also produces two enzymes that help break them down. “While these enzymes are important, they can also slow down your body’s response and the endocannabinoids’ ability to bind to your CB1 and CB2 receptors, making it harder to support a normally functioning endocannabinoid system,” explains Ehrhardt.

A CBD supplement can stimulate the receptors, making them more active and better able to bind to cannabinoids (note that cannabinoids are simply endocannabinoids that come from outside the body). It also inhibits the enzymes that break down your body’s endocannabinoids, so they can work to their full potential and better regulate things like anxiety, sleep, stress, and pain and soreness (the latter often going hand in hand with inflammation).

“Eating healthy and staying active will also help support a normal functioning endocannabinoid system,” says Ehrhardt. But, as she points out, there will always be stressors in life. Consider your diet. While you aim to get as many nutrients from food, you may still take an omega-3 supplement to help fill any holes and deficiencies. Same concept with CBD.

“CBD can be taken as needed when you experience short bouts of stress or find yourself in a constant state of high stress, whether emotional, physical, or mental,” she says. This, in a nutshell, is how CBD can help you feel and perform better throughout your daily life.

Any outside stressor, including muscle soreness, a fever, and poor sleep, will throw off your body's homeostasis, and your endocannabinoid system should kick in to get it back to baseline.  

Absorbing the benefits

Now that you have a snapshot of how CBD works in your body, let’s look closer at the individual benefits. CBD products promise to help you overcome stress and anxiety, sleep better, and reduce pain, and they’re able to do so by supporting your endocannabinoid system. But where’s the proof it works? “The current research suggests that phytocannabinoids and hemp-based products may help mediate how the nervous system interacts by actually slowing down the firing of neurons,” says Vince Kreipke, scientific advisor for Onnit. “This, in turn, could mediate messages of discomfort throughout the body.”

One scientific review that analyzed over 100 existing studies concluded that CBD helped reduce symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The review suggests that in high-stress, anxiety-ridden situations, there’s an increased availability of CB1 receptors but a decreased number of endocannabinoids, which creates an imbalance in the endocannabinoid system. A CBD supplement can help even the playing field. “We’re constantly stressing ourselves with things that aren’t beneficial to our overall health,” says Kreipke. “Hemp-based products can hopefully help to ease some of that tension.”

While there’s still a lot to understand, taking CBD is an option to explore with your doctor if you do experience anxiety that disrupts your daily flow. A 2011 study published by the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology concluded that 600 milligrams of CBD reduced anxiety and improved cognitive function when participants engaged in public speaking (always discuss dosage with your doctor). This may also be a result of CBD’s ability to improve cerebral blood flow, as one study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found.

As far as pain management goes, in another study, patients with chronic pain reported better and more sleep as well as improved mood while taking 2.5 milligrams of CBD every 24 hours. It wasn’t so much about directly reducing pain but instead improving what individuals tend to suffer from when living with chronic pain (sleep and mood). In another study, 2.5 to 120 milligrams of CBD was shown to decrease pain in patients with multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, and other conditions that caused chronic and intractable pain.

Bottom line, it’s worth a try. “If people are having joint pain or other types of pain, trying CBD as an alternative to pain medication or as a part of your pain management approach is a viable option,” says Carlson-Phillips. “Why would you take Advil when you could take something more natural with fewer consequences than traditional anti-inflammatory drugs?”

The current research suggests that phytocannabinoids and hemp-based products may help mediate how the nervous system interacts by actually slowing down the firing of neurons.   

Shopping for CBD

So what’s the catch? Now that the CBD movement is mainstream, unfortunately, it attracts companies trying to make a quick buck. Sales are projected to reach $1.8 billion by 2022, and everyone wants a piece of the pie. There are so many products to choose from — not all of them equally effective.

“What we've ended up with is kind of like the Wild West of CBD products,” says Carlson-Phillips. Some products are tested more rigorously than others or come from companies with high standards. Others simply meet the minimal requirements and throw a few buzzwords on the label to lure you in.

What that means for you: Look for companies that do third-party testing and provide a certificate of analysis. This certificate will contain information about the levels of cannabinoids, terpenes, possible contaminants, and whether THC is detected or not (many CBD products still contain THC, the only primary part of the cannabis plant has psychoactive effects). If the company says they don't have a certificate analysis but assures you the product is quality, find another company that goes the extra mile to test for purity.

Carlson compares CBD to supplements 20 years ago in her work with professional athletes, saying that while we now accept the role supplements play in sport, it wasn’t always that way. “The need for different nutrients and higher levels of certain vitamins and minerals to combat deficiencies and support performance was always there for athletes, but in those days, the word supplement was automatically synonymous with steroid,” she says. “The research, standards, and acceptance wasn’t there yet, and it was the athletes who suffered as a result.” The industry needed time to create certifications and testing to help separate the companies creating outstanding, safe products from the ones on the other end of the spectrum.

Now, 4 out of 5 Americans take supplements according to the American Osteopathic Association, and not just athletes. It’s normal and it helps people feel their best. CBD is just another emerging category of supplements that support each of us in our journey to living our best lives. And just like any other supplement, you’ve got to look for the companies doing it right.

EXOS believes in using safe, high-quality supplements. That’s why we recommend Onnit foods and supplements.

About the Author

Catherine Conelly

Catherine Conelly is a California-based health, fitness, and lifestyle writer.

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