The Neurobiology of Stress

How Stress Affects the Brain

by Lexa W. Lee

Stress is an inescapable part of our lives. It’s a natural response to stimuli which we need to keep us healthy and alert — triggered by cortisol, a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands. But too much cortisol — and for too long a period of time — can have harmful effects on our bodies. Over 43 percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress. Because it can affect us in systemic ways, toxic stress has become a major health problem in the US. In a day and age where the future may seem uncertain and healthcare professionals are in overdrive, stress — and learning how to manage it — have never been more relevant. Read on to learn how stress affects the brain, and what you can to do help keep it at bay.

Effects of Excess Stress on the Brain

We already know that experiencing stress isn’t a great or healthy feeling, but toxic or chronic stress has been linked to heart disease, stroke, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide, which are the 7 biggest causes of death among Americans. But stress affects not only the body, but also the brain, by altering its chemistry and morphology.

Short-term stress can affect how the brain processes information, but does not cause permanent changes. This may not be true for long term stress, which can lead to structural and functional changes that affect cognition, memory, attention and learning. Cortisol, a stress hormone, can interfere with sleep. Insufficient rest from prolonged stress leads to irritability, depression, exhaustion and lowered immunity.

The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

Stress is part of our survival instinct, a response to an external stimulus, which can be short or long-term. Unlike stress, anxiety is defined as a mental disorder, with long-term worries that persist, even without a stressor. Though stress and anxiety differ from each other, they can have similar symptoms.

Long-term stress can lead to anxiety disorders. In fact, anxiety is considered an adverse effect of stress, and your symptoms must continue for a duration of six months for its diagnosis. As you might imagine, the lack of an identifiable cause makes anxiety more difficult to treat. 

Managing Stress With CBD

CBD can be a very effective tool for treating stress. The top five medical conditions people treat with CBD are pain, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and headaches, all of which can be related to stress. Not only does it have a calming, relaxing effect which can regulate mood, but it has even been studied for treating insomnia, anxiety and depression, and its potential for treating multiple anxiety disorders and PTSD is an active area of research. CBD can also prevent problems with memory and learning related to prolonged stress.

CBD interacts with CB1 and CB2 receptors and is involved in the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (CB1), which plays a role in balancing levels of cortisol, a hormone that affects many functions in the body, including digestion, immunity and circadian rhythm. This means CBD can improve your quality of sleep and allow you to get more needed rest, which goes a long way in helping you stay healthy. Preliminary studies also suggest that CBD acts with GABA to prevent the fight or flight response — which can wreak havoc on the brain. In our modern world, this critical function of our sympathetic nervous system is often exacerbated due to pervasive stressors of noise, job security, the speed of daily life and more. In fact, Australian scientists report that CBD interacts with the brain’s receptor for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter. In fact, CBD can help reduce anxiety by altering the shape of the GABA-A receptor in a way that increases GABA’s natural calming effects.

As a healthcare professional or consumer, you might start by taking a few drops of a high-quality full spectrum CBD tincture under the tongue. Make sure it is nano-emulsified so it will absorb. This will help you figure out a suitable dose, since there are no standard dosage guidelines. Although you will likely feel some stress relief at the initial dose, allow several weeks for a noticeable effect, then build it into your routine to help minimize stress and the havoc it can wreak on your body and brain.

Lexa W. Lee is a former family physician, research fellow in immunology, lecturer and medical journalist. She also writes about consumer health issues.  




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