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30 July 2019
We all know what it feels like to “stress out” before an exam or important event. But sometimes a challenging job, family demands, or just surviving the unexpected events of life can feel like a continual test. If that impending sense of disaster is never-ending it’s a sign of chronic anxiety, and you might need an intervention to reset your baseline stress-response.
Unfortunately, the medical system’s solution to anxiety falls short for many people. If you struggle with chronic stress or anxiety, you may be considering supplementing your treatment with CBD oil or CBD vape pens. But what’s the evidence that CBD works?
The growing popularity of CBD products as anti-anxiety supplements is backed with plenty of convincing research, though there’s still a long way to go. Several clinical trials with humans are currently underway, but there is already good evidence of CBD’s usefulness for:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
To understand how CBD works, let’s dive into the science of how stress affect your body & brain. (If you’re already up on this topic, feel free to skip ahead to the CBD sections…)
Anxiety: How It Becomes Chronic
One in four Americans will suffer from an anxiety disorder during their lifetime — where feelings of dread, unpreparedness, and imminent danger recur more and more often, leading to racing thoughts and physical reactions. Where do these feelings come from?
A major contributor is our genetics. Small differences in our hormones or neurotransmitters (like serotonin and norepinephrine) can massively impact how we respond to stress. Another piece of the puzzle includes environmental & lifestyle toxins that affect our neurochemistry.
But probably the biggest source of anxiety is stress. Chronic stress trains your brain to feel anxious — it wants you to “remember” so you can anticipate (and hopefully avoid) more stress in the future.
If we were still running free in nature — avoiding bears and quicksand — this stress response would be useful. But we’re required to walk into stressful situations over and over and over again — and each time we have to bring our best selves without “remembering” that we’d be better off running away to a tropical beach.
Chronic Stress & Anxiety Damage Your Body
Small bursts of stress hormones tell your body to prepare for a “fight or flight” situation. Unfortunately, our bodies weren’t designed to handle a perpetual state of panic. Chronically high levels of stress hormones — particularly cortisol — wreak havoc everywhere, with consequences that include:
- Heart disease
- Digestive problems
- Weakened immune system
- Weight gain
- Muscular tension
- Endocannabinoid imbalance
The good news? If you’re constantly stressed and also suffer from any of these problems, treatment could help your symptoms improve.
Stress Messes with Your Brain Chemistry
In addition to damaging your body, chronic stress also rewires your brain. Stress hormones tell the brain to: “Focus, feel less and get ready.” Unfortunately, when this message is never turned off, your brain will make changes to tune out the message.
Scientists are still discovering the many layers of changes that take place in response to chronic stress — but they include both the brain’s structure and chemistry. Certain regions of the brain become hyperactive, while others atrophy and even shrink, and levels of neurotransmitters (like serotonin, dopamine and endocannabinoids) and their receptors also change.
Even if you manage to de-stress your life, these changes could persist — along with their negative impacts on the rest of your body. When this happens, you may need support restoring balance to your brain.
Weed’s Secret Anti-Anxiety Ingredient
If you’ve experimented with cannabis products, you’re probably familiar with the spectrum of reactions people can have when they get “high.” In movies where a character smokes weed, one of two scenarios plays out — either they sit back, relax and enjoy themselves… or they turn into a paranoid, twitchy mess.
It turns out that this unpredictability comes mainly from variations in the quantities and ratios of phytocannabinoids and synergistic terpenes. Too much THC can overstimulate the body’s CB1 receptors, while THC’s non-intoxicating sister molecule, cannabidiol (CBD), can directly and indirectly counteract the anxiety people experience from too much THC. Different cannabis strains have different concentrations of these two molecules — which is one reason for vastly different anxiety responses.
Thanks in part to medical marijuana and legalization efforts, humanity is experiencing a renaissance in cannabis research and production techniques — making it much easier to produce whole-plant CBD without any THC, creating products with the healing properties of cannabis without the cultural stigma or unpleasant side-effects traditionally associated with cannabis.
Evidence that CBD Soothes Stress & Anxiety
Beyond the glowing testimonials of individuals who successfully treat their anxiety with CBD oil, there is also a growing body of scientific evidence that CBD works. Most research has been done in rodents. A recent review discusses 32 different rodent studies that tested CBD’s effects on anxiety — and only one didn’t see useful results.
Human experiments are costly and legally complicated — which makes it no surprise that human studies are fewer and less conclusive. But overall, two exciting uses for CBD in anxiety have emerged for both rodents and humans:
- Less anxiety in response to stress. These experiments put test subjects in a stressful situation and measure their anxiety levels:
- Rodent evidence: In one example, mice were placed in a cage with a boa constrictor. Mice given low doses of CBD (equivalent to a 20 mg dosage for a 150-pound person) spent more time scanning their environment and choosing the most strategic location to run instead of panicking.
- Human evidence: Public speaking is the human equivalent of a boa constrictor. CBD improves performance anxiety both for people without anxiety disorders and also for people with social anxiety disorder.
- Extinction learning: One way we get over anxiety is through “extinction learning,” or learning to let go of triggers when there’s nothing left to fear. These experiments often train test subjects to associate something harmless with something painful, and then measure how long it takes to stop fearing the harmless trigger after they stop delivering pain. This is particularly relevant for people suffering from PTSD:
- Rodent evidence: Rodents freeze in fear when they are conditioned to expect an electric shock. However, if scientists give them CBD during the extinction learning process, they are less likely to freeze up in expectation — even after the CBD has worn off.
- Human evidence: People have also been conditioned to expect an electric shock when they see a visual cue. Those who inhaled a 32 mg dosage of CBD during extinction training (without shocks) were less expectant of receiving a shock when tested two days later — long after the CBD had worn off.
How CBD Combats Anxiety
Cannabidiol has more than 65 targets throughout the body, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the sources of its many different therapeutic properties. Studies currently suggest that CBD counters anxiety by stimulating neurotransmitter systems and neural regeneration. Here’s the evidence:
- Serotonin: Most people associate serotonin with happiness. However, the role of this neurotransmitter is very complex, and its effects depend on where it is and what it binds to. (Contrary to popular belief, more serotonin is not necessarily better — dysfunction can stem from low or high levels of serotonin, as well as from malfunctions with their receptors.) Serotonin has at least 14 different receptors, but CBD specifically binds to 5-HT1A which is thought to have the strongest role in anxiety disorders. The anti-anxiety drug buspirone also binds to this particular receptor, which explains the anti-anxiety effects of CBD on rats exposed to stressful situations.
- Endocannabinoids: Your body naturally produces cannabinoids, which are used throughout your body and brain in the endocannabinoid system. This system can become dysregulated under chronic stress. However, CBD could help restore balance to the endocannabinoid system by preventing overstimulation of your CB1 receptors and by boosting your body’s production of endocannabinoids. Rodent experiments show that CBD relieves OCD and other anxious behaviours by acting on the endocannabinoid system, which is involved in processing and forgetting our fears — vital for extinction learning.
- Neural regeneration: Although chronic stress can damage neurons and even shrink brains, certain areas of the brain are still capable of regeneration. Throughout our lives we continue to form new neurons, make new connections, and grow our brains — and CBD apparently boosts this process. This means that CBD could help to counterbalance the brain damage caused by chronic stress. Numerous studies have proved that CBD encourages neural regeneration, particularly in the hippocampus. In fact, its ability to reduce anxiety in chronically-stressed mice comes from CBD’s power to stimulate the growth of new neurons. (For more on CBD’s role in neuroplasticity and neural regeneration, see our upcoming article on depression.)
Integrative Treatments for Stress & Anxiety
With so many constant sources of stress, people often need a more holistic approach to heal from anxiety. Even medical doctors have begun suggesting that people combine traditional psychotherapy & pharmaceutical treatments with relaxation techniques like yoga & meditation.
If chronic stress and anxiety have rewired your brain, it will take work & time to undo the damage. Eventually, you can change your habitual mind patterns, but you might get there even faster if you actively help your brain neurons grow and rebuild. (For more on this topic, see our upcoming article on natural ways to increase neural regeneration.)
If you choose to supplement with CBD, it will work best as part of a comprehensive anxiety treatment plan. We encourage you to speak first with a trusted medical professional about your plans, especially if you currently take prescription medications. Similar to grapefruits, CBD could interfere with your body’s ability to metabolize drugs. A doctor or integrative practitioner can also help you rule out any contributing deficiencies and other worrisome health issues.
We wish you success on your journey and deep healing for your brain and your body.