Anxiety has become exceedingly widespread in adult Americans. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 18% of American adults – 40 million people – suffer from anxiety at any given moment while nearly a third of us will experience symptoms of anxiety disorder at some point in our lifetimes. Incredibly, the average age of onset is 11 years. Women are 60% more likely to experience anxiety disorder during the course of their lifetime in comparison to men.
These numbers are impressive and clearly support our understanding as to why people are seeking out approaches, aside from pharmaceuticals, that can be helpful.
This commentary explains the growing interest in cannabidiol, CBD, as a more natural approach to dealing with anxiety, and with good reason. Well-conducted clinical trials have already demonstrated the effectiveness of CBD in anxiety. As an example, in a 2019 study, researchers at the University of Colorado conducted a retrospective study involving 57 adults with anxiety or sleep complaints. The most common dosage of CBD used by these study participants was 25mg daily. Using standardized statistics for anxiety analysis, the researchers demonstrated a dramatic decrease in anxiety scores early in the study in 79% of the subjects. What’s more, the improvement in anxiety persisted throughout the entire 3-month study. This study was conducted in an “open-label” format meaning that subjects knew they were receiving the CBD.
CBD is a non-psychoactive derivative of the cannabis plant. It has actions far different from psychoactive THC, for example, and how it may specifically work to help with anxiety is now being revealed. CBD binds to a specific nerve receptor in the brain call the 5-HT1A serotonin receptor. This is the same receptor that is targeted by various SSRI medications like Prozac and Zoloft, which may also have some effectiveness in treating anxiety by virtue of this action. These drugs act by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin, allowing more serotonin to be available to stimulate the 5-HT1A receptor. So, in a sense, CBD acts similarly by increasing activation of this mood-regulating receptor. Recently, researchers in Spain discovered that CBD, in the research animal, actually enhances 5-HT1A response even faster than serotonin itself.
Public speaking is certainly an anxiety-producing situation for many people. So, looking at the effectiveness of CBD in this situation does provide some sense as to its role, generally, in anxiety. In a study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology researchers compared CBD to a placebo in individuals with generalized social anxiety disorder subjected to a simulated public speaking test. These volunteers then underwent an evaluation to determine their level of anxiety, including blood pressure, heart rate, and skin conduction. They were also given specific standardized tests that measure the levels of subjective anxiety in response to a stressful situation (the public speaking challenge).
The results of this study demonstrated a significant reduction in anxiety in subjects exposed to the public speaking challenge if they had received CBD versus a placebo. Interestingly, the results were the same whether the individuals carried a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder, or not.
CBD offers up a unique opportunity to deal with anxiety quite apart from relying upon synthetic pharmaceuticals. As with any intervention, it’s important to consider the operating philosophy of “above all, do no harm.” This brings up the important consideration of the safety of CBD in humans. To address this, an Expert Committee of the World Health Organization reviewed as much data as is available regarding the possibility of adverse reactions to CBD and concluded:
CBD does not produce the effects that are typically seen with cannabinoids such as THC. It also failed to produce significant effects in a human study of abuse potential …. Across a number of controlled and open label trials CBD of the potential therapeutic effects of CBD it is generally well tolerated, with a good safety profile. …While the number of studies is limited, the evidence from well controlled human experimental research indicates that CBD is not associated with abuse potential.
Anxiety is a pervasive and often significantly compromising experience. Understanding that there are non-pharmaceutical options to help ameliorate the symptoms associated with anxiety is empowering. Current science validates the addition of CBD to the list of other approaches to help with anxiety, like limiting caffeine, paying attention to sleep quality, and exercise.
And its safety profile is yet another reason to consider CBD in anxiety management.