Cortisol, the “stress hormone”, helps regulate a number of processes in the body. When cortisol levels are out of balance it can cause a number of issues. Learn more. Cannabis affects hormones through two of its many compounds. However, these two compounds, THC and CBD, have very different effects.
4 Functions of Cortisol in Your Body and What CBD’s Got to Do With It
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” because it plays a key role in our bodies’ response to stress. That said, this steroid hormone also serves several other functions in the body. In this article, we’ll walk you through some of the major functions of cortisol, as well as what can throw it off balance. Lastly, we detail how CBD might be able to help regulate your cortisol levels.
Which Body Functions Is Cortisol Involved in?
In This Article
Cortisol is heavily involved in what is known as our “fight-or-flight” response, when we’re presented with a stressful situation or perceived threat. Adrenaline and cortisol spike, putting you into high alert, primed to respond to the danger — whether you’re being followed by a tiger or you have to give a big presentation. Cortisol alters some of our bodies’ “nonessential” functions — that is, things that can be pushed aside while you’re in a situation that needs to be dealt with there and then — so that you’re able to fight (face the situation head on) or take flight (escape the situation).
The natural ebb and flow of cortisol levels in the body helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle (or, body clock). A paper published in Natural Medicine Journal describes cortisol production throughout the day as a waveform pattern. “Cortisol levels start to rise approximately 2-3 hours after sleep onset and continue to rise into the early morning and early waking hours. The peak in cortisol is about 9 a.m.; as the day continues, levels decline gradually.” Knowing this, it’s easy to see how an imbalance in your cortisol levels could lead to sleeplessness at night and grogginess during the day.
Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory hormone. If you’re exposed to too much stress, your body may not produce enough cortisol to keep your body in balance, which in turn can lead to inflammation. “Although stressful events may be an inevitable part [of] life, a prolonged or exaggerated response to pain or non–pain-related stressors may intensify sympathetic and neuroendocrine activity, exhaust cortisol, and perpetuate widespread pain and inflammation,” according to an article published in Physical Therapy. This is another reason why keeping cortisol levels steady is so important.
Cortisol is involved in regulating the glucose levels in your body, and works to increase blood sugar . According to one paper , “The presence of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, increases the availability of blood glucose to the brain.” Essentially, when you enter flight-or-flight mode, you need enough energy to deal with the stressful situation, and cortisol provides your body with the glucose it needs to “fight” or run. It follows that if you find yourself in stressful situations too often, your blood sugar levels might become too high, which is part of why managing stress should be a priority for your well-being.
What Can Throw Cortisol Out of Whack?
You can have either too little or too much cortisol in the body for it to function optimally — the goal should be to keep your cortisol levels balanced, so that you can go about your daily tasks. A number of factors can throw cortisol out of balance, but the main one to look for is stress, as you might have already gathered. Experiencing some amount of stress is normal and healthy, but if you’re under constant stress, your body might release too much cortisol, which can lead to issues down the line. High levels of estrogen in the body, as in pregnancy, can also heighten cortisol.
CBD and Cortisol: What Studies Show About How They Interact
Many people regularly take CBD in hopes to help them manage their stress levels, and current research tends toward supporting this approach. One study of 11 volunteers found that taking 300 or 600 milligrams of CBD decreased cortisol levels. Other research has found similar potential, showing how CBD may work within our bodies’ natural systems to help us regulate our stress response and balance cortisol levels. So if you often find yourself in stressful situations, you could try taking a CBD daily to evaluate how it impacts you over time.
Ultimately, cortisol has rightfully earned its reputation as the “stress hormone” and is involved in regulating a number of body functions. But when cortisol levels become imbalanced, this can interfere with how well we sleep, heighten blood sugar and lead to inflammation, among other things. Therefore, managing stress is especially important for keeping cortisol levels within a healthy range — and CBD may be able to help with that.
Iris Goldsztajn is a London-based writer and editor with seven years of experience creating content for various outlets. Her work has appeared in the likes of InStyle, Stylist and Cosmopolitan, and she won first place in Writing Magazine’s Grand Prize for a short story in 2020.
How Cannabis Affects Hormones: THC vs. CBD
With cannabis being legalized in more states and countries, the effects of its compounds are just beginning to become more understood. One area of concern is how cannabis affects hormones. Research focuses on two major compounds THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).
THC brings on the ‘high’ that is associated with cannabis. It affects hormones significantly. CBD affects hormones as well, but in a different way.
Cannabis contains about 80 different compounds, but these two spur most of the research.
The majority of the cannabinoids work by binding with receptors that exist in your body naturally. These receptors exist in the brain, lungs, kidneys, immune system, and liver. Researchers believe these receptors make up the largest receptor system in the body.
They help your body experience pain, regulate metabolism, feel anxious, have food cravings, grow bones, and maintain your immune system.
The Endocannabinoid System
Before going further into how cannabis affects hormones, you need to know about the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in your body. The ECS contains the receptors for cannabinoids throughout your body.
Researchers believe this system plays a role in almost all of the activities in the body. It helps regulate the balancing of emotions, assists in homeostasis, helps with memory, encourages sleep, and helps with reproduction. Endocannabinoids exist naturally in the body in small amounts and act on these receptors to support normal bodily functions.
The body contains several types of these receptors, but two, CB1 and CB2, are the most important to understanding how cannabis affects you. Both THC and CBD bind with these receptors. Through this binding, cannabis affects hormones but with different results.
THC and How Cannabis Affects Hormones
Information regarding THC and the hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid (HPT) axis shows that it has significant effects on hormones. This axis regulates metabolic functions, brain development, muscle control, and heart and digestive functions. Cannabis affects hormones by inhibiting the release of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) from the pituitary gland. It appears this inhibition is attained through the effects of THC on the release of thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) in the hypothalamus.
The more THC consumed, the greater this effect.
When cannabis affects hormones in this way, your body contains lower levels of circulating T3 and T4. These low levels of thyroid hormones lead to hypothyroidism with symptoms like fatigue, cold intolerance, depression, weight gain, unusual menstrual cycles, and lower libido.
How Cannabis Affects Hormones in the HPG Axis
Another axis in which cannabis affects hormones in your body is the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis. This axis regulates reproductive functions as well as modulating hormones and their effects on all functions of the body.
Cannabis affects hormones in many parts of the HPG axis. By means of its regulation of GABA and glutamate in the hypothalamus, THC indirectly reduces the release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). GnRH stimulates the pituitary to release luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Both of these hormones affect ovarian functioning and regulate menstrual cycles in females. In males, they play important roles in the production of sperm and testosterone. THC also affects GnRH through its effects on dopamine which lowers the signaling of GnRH.
In women, THC affects both the maturing of follicles in the ovaries and ovulation. A natural surge in endocannabinoids comes during ovulation. Cannabis affects hormones by increasing cannabinoids and disrupting ovulation, leading to irregular menstrual cycles. THC also causes menstrual problems in women by interrupting the conversion of pregnenolone into progesterone.
Cannabis affects hormones in men through THC’s ability to lower sperm count, reduce testosterone levels and sperm motility, and decrease the sperms’ ability to complete conception.
All of these ways cannabis affects hormones lowers fertility in both males and females.
How THC Affects Hormones in the HPA Axis
The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the main pathway by which your body first responds to stress. Initially, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and vasopressin (VP). These two chemicals stimulate the pituitary to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone then prompts the adrenal glands to release cortisol into the bloodstream.
Cortisol functions as the main stress fighting hormone in your body, but it also performs many other functions. It works to control blood sugar levels, decreases inflammation, helps regulate metabolism, affects blood pressure, and helps with the formation of memory.
However, continually high levels of cortisol ultimately harm the body.
One way cannabis affects hormones influenced by the HPA axis shows up as increased levels of cortisol. THC raises circulating cortisol levels. Over time, increased usage of cannabis leads to prolonged high levels of cortisol, resulting in a reduction of your body’s natural sensitivity to changes in cortisol levels. It also affects women’s libido and menstrual cycles negatively.
High levels of cortisol caused by cannabis also work to blunt the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR). This response works to help you wake up by causing a spike in cortisol in the morning. With inhibition of this response, your body has to work harder at waking up and may experience trouble with normal daytime functioning.
How CBD Affects Hormones in the HPA Axis
CBD is the other major compound found in cannabis. Its effects on hormones is different from those of THC.
One of the major differences in how CBD affects hormones relates to the receptors of the ECS throughout your body. THC binds directly to CB1 receptors found in your central nervous system, leading to its psychoactive results. CBD works indirectly through other cells that bind with these receptors. Working indirectly results in CBD not having the psychoactive results of THC.
Another result of this indirect work on receptors is an increase in two endocannabinoids, AEA and 2-AG. This increase allows the ECS to work more effectively in balancing the body in times of stress.
When cannabis affects hormones through CBD’s effects on the amygdala and the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST), it helps lessen anxiety. These two brain areas work together to indicate when stress and anxiety are present. CBD serves to reduce anxiety through its work on these areas of the brain.
How Stress Affects Your Body
As has already been mentioned, the HPA axis stimulates your adrenal glands to release cortisol and other hormones to fight the effects of stress. Ideally, once the source of stress has been handled, your adrenals return to a normal state and cortisol levels reduce.
However, stress tends to increase and become chronic in the culture today. This means your adrenals continue to have more demands placed on them to release more cortisol. At some point, your adrenals stop producing and releasing sufficient cortisol because of fatigue. The demand doesn’t go away, however. Thus begins Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) and its associated symptoms.
When stress becomes chronic, your body responds with the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response. This comprises a system of six interrelated circuits composed of organs and systems that work together to help you handle stress.
Each circuit holds three organs or systems that overlap with the other circuits. Thus, what affects one circuit affects others as well. With continuing stress, these circuits can get overwhelmed and become dysfunctional. Symptoms of varying severity result.
The Hormonal Circuit and THC Effects
In those who suffer from AFS, the hormonal circuit feels the effects of cannabis use the most. THC increases the level of cortisol in your body. In the early stages of AFS, cortisol levels are high as the adrenals increase their release of this hormone.
With continued stress, your adrenals feel the pressure to release more cortisol to meet demand. This puts additional burden on your adrenals. Add to this the effects of THC increasing cortisol levels, and it can lead to multiple organ resistance.
In women, this often manifests as an imbalance in the ovarian-thyroid-adrenals (OAT) axis, bringing on other imbalances in the ovaries and thyroid. In males, the adrenal-thyroid axis becomes imbalanced.
The thyroid aspect of this imbalance gains importance since research shows cannabis tends to reduce thyroid function tremendously, possibly as much as 90%. This suggests sufferers from AFS who experience hypothyroidism may be especially adversely affected by THC.
CBD’s Effects on the Hormonal Circuit
CBD affects hormones almost the opposite of THC. To begin, it lowers cortisol levels. In addition, CBD works to help the HPA modulate cortisol released under stress. Lowered cortisol levels with CBD also increase insulin sensitivity, benefit the immune system, help with fat loss, and improve bone strength and mineralization.
Typically in the early stages of AFS, people experience anxiety, sleeplessness, and irritability. CBD helps with all of these symptoms.
When a person works at recovering from AFS, decreasing overall stress and increasing sleep are essential in the effort. Cannabis, at least the CBD component, tends to help relieve stress temporarily and increase the ability to get improved sleep.
Since cortisol affects insulin function in your body, decreasing cortisol levels with CBD helps AFS. Lower cortisol leads to better balanced blood sugar levels. Overburdened adrenals lead to drops in blood sugar levels. This then brings on lightheadedness and dizziness. On the other hand, using cannabis with THC leads to spikes in blood sugar.
The use of cannabis with high levels of CBD also helps lower overall stress levels. This benefits people with AFS since lower stress is a goal of recovery. Anxiety, stress, and depression are all symptoms and causes of AFS. CBD works to the person’s benefit in all of these areas.
Other Ways Cannabis Affects Hormones
As your adrenals become fatigued and no longer able to produce enough cortisol, mechanisms in your body that fight inflammation no longer function well. One of the ways cannabis affects hormones is to help them fight inflammation.
High levels of cortisol suppress the functioning of your immune system. Using cannabis also suppresses the immune system. With AFS and high levels of cortisol, this leads to compromised immune functioning. It also leaves you open to opportunistic infections.
Cannabis is a natural substance making it safer for use in AFS than prescription drugs. However, long-term use can lead to dependency. Its use should only be considered under the direction of a health professional.
Research clearly shows the multiple ways cannabis affects hormones. The two major compounds in cannabis – THC and CBD – affect hormones in opposite ways.
Throughout your body, there are multiple receptors for endocannabinoids. These are the natural cannabis-like compounds that occur in your body.
Binding with these receptors, THC and CBD carry out their effects in nearly all functions of your body. THC binds directly with the receptors, especially those in the central nervous system. This brings about its psychoactive results. CBD works indirectly and does not have these effects.
The THC in cannabis affects your thyroid by decreasing the levels of T3 and T4 available to you. This leads to hypothyroidism. The more THC you consume, the greater this effect.
THC also affects the hormones of your body by decreasing the amount of FSH and LH. Both of these hormones affect males and females. In females, the decreased amounts of these hormones causes difficulty with menstrual cycles and ovarian functioning. In males, they affect sperm production and function, along with decreasing testosterone levels.
THC also increases cortisol levels which can lead to significant problems. Too high cortisol levels for too long brings harm to your body.
CBD lowers overall cortisol levels and improves the functioning of numerous systems in your body. One benefit of CBD is increasing insulin sensitivity. This leads to a balancing of blood sugar levels.
It also helps strengthen immune functioning and helps with weight loss. CBD lowers overall stress, decreases anxiety, and improves sleep.
In general, using cannabis may bring on benefits for people with AFS. Only cannabis with high CBD content should be considered, however. All use of cannabis should be undertaken only under the supervision of a medical professional.
© Copyright 2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
What are the ways in which cannabis affects hormones?
Cannabis affects hormones in several ways. The two major components of cannabis, THC and CBD, have opposite effects on hormones. THC increases cortisol, decreases insulin sensitivity, and may be addictive. CBD lowers cortisol, increases insulin sensitivity, and helps anxiety. CBD also lowers overall stress, bringing relief to AFS sufferers.