Although we do not normally think anxiety is desirable, it is an essential coping reaction that can help us deal with threats to the safety and well-being of our person (or their loved ones). These answers help us to recognize and avoid potential threats. They can also motivate us to take action to improve our situation (working harder, paying bills, improving relationships, etc.). However, when we do not manage these natural responses effectively, they can become inadequate and have an impact on our work and relationships. This can lead to clinically diagnosable anxiety disorders. We have all heard the saying “Stress kills”. That’s right!
Anxiety disorders affect a large segment of our population: 40 million adults (18%) in the United States aged 18 and over. In response, Big Pharma has developed many drugs to treat anxiety disorders, ranging from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Zoloft to tranquilizers (the most popular class being benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax).
Although these drugs may be effective for many patients, some do not respond positively. Some patients do not see much improvement or do not tolerate side effects. Also, tranquilizers such as Valium and Xanax can be highly addictive. Alternative treatments are guaranteed. Could cannabidiol (CBD), the most important non-toxic constituent of cannabis, be a viable alternative to the anxiety medications currently available? Most likely! In recent years, the CBD has generated considerable interest among consumers, clinicians, and scientists. Why? Evidence suggests that CBD counters many of the adverse effects of THC, but numerous animal studies and accumulated evidence from experimental, clinical and epidemiological studies in humans suggest that CBD has powerful anti-anxiety properties. When administered acutely (“as needed”), it appears to be safe, well-tolerated and may be beneficial in treating several anxiety disorders, among others:
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Mild to moderate depression
CBD to fight stress and anxiety
CBD has several actions in the brain that explain why it may be effective in treating anxiety. Before diving, it is important to note that most of the research describing the functioning of the CBD is preclinical and based on animal studies. As the saying goes, “mice are not men” – and the results of animal studies are not always perfectly transposed to human therapies. However, preclinical studies provide information that points us in the right direction:
5-HT1A receptor agonist
5-HT1A is a subtype of the serotonin receptor, which is important because anxiety and depression can sometimes be treated with drugs that target the serotonin system. As a result, pharmaceutical companies have developed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Zoloft. SSRIs act by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin in the brain, increasing the availability of serotonin in the synaptic space. This helps brain cells transmit more serotonin signals, which can reduce anxiety and improve mood in some cases (although the full biological basis for this action is more complicated and poorly understood).
Like SSRIs, CBD can stimulate serotonin receptor signaling. In an animal study, Spanish researchers found that CBD increased the transmission of 5-HT1A and could affect serotonin more rapidly than SSRIs. The researchers noted:
The rapid onset of the antidepressant action of CBD and the simultaneous anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect would resolve some of the major limitations of current antidepressant treatments.
Neurogenesis of the hippocampus
The hippocampus is a major brain region and plays an essential role in various brain functions. It is best known for its role in the formation of memory and cognition. Brain scans of patients with depression or anxiety often show a smaller hippocampus and effective treatment.and effective treatment of depression is associated with the birth of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the hippocampus.
An animal study using mice revealed that repeated administration of CBD may help the hippocampus regenerate neurons, which may be useful in treating anxiety or depression. Research shows that SSRIs and CBD can promote neurogenesis. This is significant, as the evidence suggests that severe alteration of neuronal plasticity can influence suicidal behavior. Future research comparing the effects of CDB and SSRIs on neurogenesis may open up promising new avenues for understanding depression and treating it effectively.
Based on animal studies, human studies are beginning to provide evidence that CBD can improve many commonly reported anxiety disorder symptoms, including acute stress and anxiety.
Human studies show how CBD reduces anxiety
Brazilian researchers conducted a small double-blind study in patients with generalized social anxiety. After consuming CBD, participants reported a significant decrease in anxiety. The researchers validated patients’ subjective reports by performing brain analyses showing brain circulation patterns consistent with an anti-anxiety effect.
In another small study, researchers asked patients with a social anxiety disorder to perform a public conversation simulation test. Participants reported a significant decrease in anxiety, supported by objective anxiety indicators such as heart rate and blood pressure.
The researchers concluded that:
CBD significantly reduces anxiety, cognitive impairment, and speech performance discomfort, while the placebo group had higher anxiety, cognitive impairment[and] discomfort.
Evidence from animal analyses has begun to characterize the details of CBD’s action in the brain and studies in humans on patients with and without anxiety disorders are beginning to validate its effectiveness as an anti-anxiety treatment. Given the enormous social and financial costs of anxiety disorders in the United States, CBD can play an important role in the treatment of a myriad of anxiety disorders.
More research, including large randomized controlled trials (RCTs), is warranted the long-term effects and potential of CBD, its demonstrated efficacy and very favorable safety profile (particularly compared to currently available drugs) make it a viable product, and an alternative or addition to currently available pharmaceuticals.