Does Smoking Weed Help (or Worsen) Anxiety?

November 14, 2017

A massive study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, partnering with Harvard, Johns Hopkins University, and several other top Universities around the world, found that anxiety affects nearly 1 in every 13 people worldwide. In North America this number was even higher, afflicting about 10 percent of the entire population with some form of clinical anxiety.

These are incredibly high numbers, nearly 580 million people worldwide.

Given the dangerous side effects of pharmaceutical drugs, the search to find safe, natural means of treatment is more important than ever, and people are starting to look into whether using marijuana for anxiety symptoms can be a reliable means of managing the condition.

Marijuana for Anxiety: Conflicting Stories

With increasing focus on the medicinal value of cannabis, many are beginning to explore its relationship to anxiety. However, between scientists, media, and personal anecdotes, there’s quite a bit of conflicting evidence out there.

If you haven’t experienced it, you have almost certainly heard a story about someone who smoked some marijuana and became obsessively paranoid and uncomfortable. The story is that cannabis created their anxiety.

The other side has people espousing cannabis’ relaxing, soothing, and balancing effect. This story is that they've had huge success in using marijuana for anxiety management.

So...which is it?

A Tale of Two Cannabinoids

The differences in the stories around cannabis and anxiety have everything to do with their cannabinoid profile, specifically in the ratio of THC to CBD.

THC, the strongly psychoactive molecule most responsible for the high people experience with marijuana, binds to CB1 receptors in the brain. Many of these receptors are located in a brain region called the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure that is largely responsible for stress response, fear, and, anxiety. When something increases the activity of the amygdala, the experience of fear and anxiety is heightened. While low doses of THC have been shown to reduce anxiety, higher doses increase it.

CBD, on the other hand, has a very different mechanism of action and actually reverses the anxiety-inducing effects of cannabis. In the brain, CBD acts on the enzymes that break down your endocannabinoids, similar to how an MAOI antidepressant works. So rather than stimulating specific neural pathways via the CB1 receptor, it works to raise your level of natural endocannabinoids, which are involved in homeostasis and balance, including your stress and anxiety levels.

What the Research Shows

When we look at the research, there is a growing body of evidence showing that cannabinoids play an important role in anxiety. One study in mice found that raising the levels of endocannabinoids relieved depressive behavior, implying the same may be true in humans experiencing anxiety. Another study found similar anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects of CBD. The same study found it stimulated the 5HT1A receptor, a serotonin receptor that is the target of many pharmaceutical antidepressants and antianxiety medications.

As compelling as this is, mice are not humans. So what about effects in real-life people?

In humans with social anxiety disorder, CBD altered blood flow in the limbic (emotional) regions—the same areas powerfully influenced by the amygdala. One of the most interesting studies looked at anxiety levels in people forced to engage in public speaking, a huge source of anxiety for many. And compared to the placebo, CBD significantly reduced anxiety in this real-world situational anxiety.

Final Thoughts

Anxiety is a shadowy condition, the product of a wide array of factors, ranging from genetics to trauma to diet. There is no single magic pill that will cure you forever. But there are natural methods that can help manage the symptoms, and CBD is clearly one of them.

If you choose to use marijuana for anxiety management, be sure to select a high-CBD strain. Each individual is unique and it may take some experimentation to find what works best for you. As a guide, you can check out Leafly’s list of best strains for anxiety.

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