Research papers on CBD & Anxiety: Pros & Cons [Simplified]

Anxiousness is part of the body’s natural fight-or-flight mechanism to deal with an impending crisis or danger.

But when anxiety disorders become chronic or recur randomly without any real sense of danger, gripping a person with panic attacks with even the slightest provocation, manifesting physically with chest pain, breathlessness, headaches, and sweating – there is a reason to worry. We may be dealing with what is known as an anxiety disorder.

Such conditions may continue for months and be accompanied by unexplained paranoia, sudden bouts of depression, and uncontrollable mood swings. These symptoms may not only be overwhelming, but also debilitating.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, depression affects 6% and anxiety affects 18% of the population in the US each year (1).

For a person, suffering from such symptoms, it is never easy to decide what line of treatment is best for him or her. Conventional methods of treatment usually focus on therapy, medication, and self-management of different sorts. Medication usually include benzodiazepines, antidepressants, beta blockers and SNRIs (serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) – all of which come with adverse side-effects.

But in recent times, several herbal and other alternatives, non-pharmaceutical solutions for treating anxiety disorders are gaining popularity, mostly due to their almost negligible side effects.

Case in point: CBD oil (2).

In spite of the controversies surrounding marijuana and its extraction, as well as the question of its legality, cannabidiol oil (+), a non-psychoactive compound (does not give a “high”), is the focus of much research among the scientific community. And most of them have yielded positive results for people keen on pursuing this path for managing their anxiety issues.

CBD – A potential treatment for Anxiety Disorder

If you are looking to use CBD oil to manage your anxiety – be it Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), social anxiety, specific phobias,Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Post-Traumatic Disorder – you need to focus exclusively on research on cannabidiol oil, rather than generalized studies of medical marijuana.

The difference lies in the fact that medical marijuana contains higher traces of Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, which CBD oil does not have, making it one product that has hardly any side effects, particularly concerning those with anxiety disorders. On the other hand, THC, a psychoactive compound, tends to make patients with anxiety issues more vulnerable, in fact, aggravates their symptoms (3).

Research citing positive effects on anxiety disorder patients

  • A study (4), conducted in 2010, revealed CBD’s power in reducing ‘symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder. The participants’ brain scans showed changes in the blood flow to areas of the brain that are linked to anxiety. The subjects displayed clear signs of calming down under the effect of CBD oil. In fact, their brains reacted to anxiety differently under its effect.
  • Another study (5), published the Neuropsychopharmacology journal in 2011, found that cannabidiol can actually reduce social anxiety among people with phobia of public speaking. In this case, they tested 24 subjects with either 600 mg of CBD or placebo an hour and a half before public speaking. Those who had been given CBD dealt better with their anxiety than those given placebo.
  • In research published in 2014 (6), scientists proved the positive effects of CBD oil on animal test subjects. It was found that this non-psychoactive drug had anti-anxiety and antidepressant qualities.
  • Coming as more good news for CBD proponents, a 2015 analysis (7) of earlier studies proved that cannabidiol oil has potential healing effects on people suffering from different forms of anxiety, including social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, the research only supported the role of CBD oil as a short-term cure for patients living with anxiety disorders. There is still no evidence, whatsoever, of any long-term benefits of CBD on such patients. There is also no clinical data available on its effect on people using this drug over a long period of time.

  • In a 2016 case study (8), researchers tested the effect of CBD oil on a child suffering from a traumatic past. They noted that it helped her calm down and fall asleep, proving that CBD oil can, in fact, help reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety-provoked sleep disorder.

There is a lot of research material available in the public domain, displaying the positive impact of CBD oil on people suffering from anxiety disorders. However, their effects vary from patient to patient, and the dosage required for any patient depends solely on that individual’s tolerance level.

Notwithstanding its benefits, there are some safety concerns that need to be taken into account before opting for this alternative method of treating anxiety and depression.

When is CBD a bad fit for anxiety disorder patients?

Cannabis products, other than CBD oil, often have an adverse effect on people suffering from anxiety issues. In fact, it has been seen that frequent cannabis users often suffer from anxiety disorders. Similarly, a very high number of patients with anxiety disorders happen to be cannabis abusers (9).

Reason: The presence of THC – a cannabinoid*, responsible for mind-altering effects among humans and animals alike. This does, in fact, cause addiction and dependence among users.

However, research specifically on CBD oil or cannabidiol has not found any such negative side-effects on people suffering from anxiety or depression. Studies on test subjects have only shown a calming effect on their nerves. This could mean that CBD oil has the potential to become a preferred alternative treatment for anxiety disorders among patients who are resistant to other anti-anxiety drugs.

However, CBD oil available in the market, do contain some amount of THC (permissible amount of 0.3% or below is present in industrial grade CBD oil). Some patients may react badly to it. There is no research or study that can definitively conclude that all humans are immune to THC’s effects if its presence is below 0.3%.

Research-based evidence against the use of CBD for anxiety

  • In spite of its varied benefits, we cannot rule out the possibility of CBD oil adversely interacting with other medications (being used by patients for an anxiety disorder or any other pre-existing condition). It has been found that drugs like benzodiazepines, calcium channel blockers, antihistamines, and some types of anti-epileptic drugs (10) do tend to react with cannabidiol oil, making the patients more vulnerable to different types of health complications.
  • There is evidence of marijuana products having ill effects on babies if the mother is using it during her pregnancy or after delivery, while she is still breastfeeding her child (11). However, there is no such evidence regarding CBD oil, which has only 0.3% THC at the most. But, in the absence of extensive research, it is safe to stay away from CBD oil too during pregnancy (12).

The absence of side-effects alone cannot be grounds for its recommendation for people with anxiety disorder. If the treatment does not improve the patient’s condition, it is of no use to them.

  • Such was the case with some test subjects, suffering from high paranoid traits, in October 2017. The study, which was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2018 (15), established that cannabidiol had no impact on their anxiety and cortisol levels, heart rate, systolic blood pressure, and persecutory ideation.
  • Cannabidiol also does not reduce responses to negative emotional stimuli or reduce anxiety in healthy participants. This was published in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research in 2017 (16). After giving the participants oral CBD, the scientists recorded their responses to negative images and words and exposed them to emotionally threatening situations. They found no remarkable improvement in the way the subjects reacted under CBD’s effect.
  • This study also proved that if a high dosage of cannabidiol (900 mg or higher) is ingested, it slightly increases the heart rate (13). Increased heart rate may lead to shortness of breath, dizziness, or even heart failure. Since CBD oil is not a regulated treatment for anxiety, there is still no clear instruction available for its dosage.
  • A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2017 (14) suggested that almost 70% of all CBD products sold online are mislabeled. This means that they could contain higher traces of THC that could seriously harm patients with anxiety disorders.

If you still wish to use it as an alternative treatment method for anxiety, consult a doctor who has experience with CBD oil to find out the right dosage for you.

An Overview

Although research into the therapeutic effects of CBD is gaining momentum, most benefits of CBD are not backed by clinical data. Cannabidiol’s role as a treatment for anxiety disorders is still unclear, in the absence of long-term studies to determine its benefits and risks.

For people with anxiety who haven’t got any relief from other treatments, CBD oil may seem to offer a potential alternative solution. However, if you are considering using it (and if it is legal where you live), consult a doctor who is familiar with CBD oil as a treatment option and find out if it is suitable for your condition.

+ Extracted from Cannabis Sativa, of which marijuana and hemp are sub-species

* A cannabinoid is a class of diverse chemical compounds that target the body’s endocannabinoid system, altering neurotransmitter release in the brain.