While we don’t normally think of anxiety as desirable, it’s actually a critical adaptive response that can help us cope with threats to our (or a loved one’s) safety and welfare. These responses help us recognize and avert potential threats; they can also help motivate us to take action to better our situation (work harder, pay bills, improve relationships, etc.). However, when we don’t manage these natural responses effectively, they can become maladaptive and impact our work and relationships. This can lead to clinically diagnosable anxiety-related disorders. We’ve all heard the saying, “stress kills.” It’s true!
Anxiety-related disorders affect a huge segment of our population—40 million adults (18%) in the United States age 18 and older. In response, Big Pharma has developed numerous drugs to treat anxiety-related disorders, from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft to tranquilizers (the most popular class being benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax).
While these drugs can be effective for many patients, some don’t respond favorably. Certain patients don’t see much improvement, or they can’t tolerate the side effects. Moreover, tranquilizers like Valium and Xanax can be highly addictive. Clearly, alternative treatments are warranted. Could cannabidiol (CBD), the most prominent non-intoxicating constituent in cannabis, provide a viable alternative for currently available anxiety medications? Quite possibly!
In recent years, CBD has generated a tremendous amount of interest among consumers, clinicians, and scientists. Why? Not only does evidence suggest CBD counteracts many of THC’s adverse effects, but numerous animal studies and accumulating evidence from human experimental, clinical, and epidemiological studies suggest CBD has powerful anti-anxiety properties. Administered acutely (“as needed”), it appears safe, well-tolerated, and may be beneficial to treat a number of anxiety-related disorders, including:
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Social phobia
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Mild to moderate depression
How Does CBD Work?
CBD exerts several actions in the brain that explain why it could be effective in treating anxiety. Before we dive in, it’s important to note that most research describing how CBD works is preclinical and based on animal studies. As the saying goes, “mice are not men” — and, results from animal studies don’t always neatly transfer to human therapies. However, preclinical studies provide insights that move us in the right direction:
5-HT1A agonist: 5-HT1A is a subtype of the serotonin receptor, which is important because anxiety and depression can sometimes be treated with medications that target the serotonin system. This is why drug companies developed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft. SSRIs work by blocking reabsorption of serotonin in the brain, which increases availability of serotonin in the synaptic space. This helps brain cells transmit more serotonin signals, which can reduce anxiety and boost mood in certain cases (although the full biological basis for this is more complicated and not fully understood).
Similar to SSRIs, CBD may boost signaling through serotonin receptors. In an animal study, Spanish researchers found that CBD enhances 5-HT1A transmission and may affect serotonin faster than SSRIs. Researchers noted:
“The fast onset of antidepressant action of CBD and the simultaneous anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect would solve some of the main limitations of current antidepressant therapies.”
Building on the foundation of animal studies, human studies are starting to provide evidence to demonstrate that CBD can improve many commonly reported anxiety-disorder symptoms, including acute stress and anxiety.