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Does CBD Help to Relieve Stress and Anxiety? Here's What Science Says

CBD, also known by the clinical term cannabidiol, is becoming popular because of anecdotal evidence that it works to treat a number of symptoms. Ask your friends and neighbors who’ve tried it, and you’re sure to hear lots of success stories.

If you often feel anxious and overwhelmed, there is quite a bit of scientific evidence that CBD can help. Keep reading to discover what science says about CBD for stress and anxiety. 

About CBD 

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a compound extracted from the cannabis plant. It’s used in various forms, perhaps most commonly in carrier oils. Chemicals in CBD, called cannabinoids, bind to receptors in the brain, which can lead to a number of positive health effects.

CBD isn’t psychoactive and doesn’t cause users to feel the “high” associated with the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Therefore, you can take it without the worry of impaired function.

CBD can come from both marijuana and hemp plants. Each has different amounts of CBD and THC. Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, which is far too little to get you “stoned.” Thus, you don’t have to worry about any psychoactive effects when taking a supplement derived from hemp.

Along with lessening anxiety and stress, CBD has been shown to have many other health benefits. The FDA approved purified CBD in the treatment of two forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. The brand name of the medicine manufactured for this purpose is Epidiolex. 

CBD is also known to be effective in the relief of some types of pain. Many sufferers of joint or nerve pain swear by CBD to ease their symptoms. Anti-inflammatory properties are also present in CBD. Reduction of inflammation in various parts of the body is possible through taking CBD regularly. 

Sleep problems can be improved through the use of cannabidiol, and skin issues like eczema and psoriasis frequently respond well to topical CBD salve.  

This brings us to the various ways in which CBD can be administered. As noted earlier, the compound is most commonly seen in oil form. To create the oil, cannabidiol is extracted from the cannabis plant. Then it is diluted with a carrier oil like coconut or hemp-seed oil so it is easier to digest. CBD oil is usually administered under the tongue with a dropper and swallowed. 

Traditional capsules or pills are available. Creams, lotions and salves are also popular for topical use. They’re used to treat muscle and joint pain, as well as to address certain skin issues. Vaping is another option some people enjoy.

Finally, many people prefer to take CBD in the form of edibles like gummies or chocolate. These are great for those who are experimenting with CBD or who prefer this method of intake. However, it does take longer to get the cannabidiol into your system in this manner.

Effects of Anxiety on the Brain 

Science has shown that stress and anxiety have demonstrable effects on the brain and its structure. Two parts of the brain play a significant role in the development and management of anxiety -- the hippocampus and the amygdala.

The hippocampus processes negative or alarming events into memories. The amygdala is the communications hub between incoming sensory signals and the processing of those signals. It is the region that alerts the rest of your brain when a threat, or perceived danger, is present. The amygdala elicits an anxious or fearful response. 

Chemicals like norepinephrine and cortisol are released when the brain perceives a threat. This boost leads to reflexive responses, such as increased heart rate and heightened awareness. Survival mode kicks in. When there are real threats present, this instinct is useful.

When experienced repeatedly over time, our bodies and brains can suffer harmful effects. Chronic anxiety keeps you on high alert, and your mind continues to release heightened levels of hormones in response.

Weight gain, heart disease, a compromised immune system and many other adverse health consequences are associated with prolonged exposure to stress.

More recent research indicates there may be a connection between long-term anxiety and damage to the hippocampus and other areas of the brain. Many studies have shown that people who have a history of significant trauma have smaller hippocampus regions.

Fortunately, it is believed that some of this damage can be reversed. The brain’s plasticity, or ability to regenerate parts of itself, makes scientific studies of CBD and anxiety particularly good news. 

CBD and Anxiety 

In the past, most media attention was focused on medical marijuana. However, because of the recent surge in interest in CBD, research on the topic is on the rise. More studies are being done on CBD today, and we’re learning a great deal about CBD’s effects on wellness issues such as anxiety and stress.

There are many receptors throughout your body. Receptors are attached to cells and made up of protein-based chemical structures. These receptors receive all sorts of signals from different stimuli, depending upon the type of receptor and its function.

The receptors that interact with CBD are the CB1 and CB2 receptors. These are also referred to as endocannabinoid receptors. They’re located primarily in the central nervous system, but are also present in the peripheral nervous system.

The exact ways in which CBD interacts with these receptors is unknown, though there are several theories. Some researchers think CBD may affect serotonin signals.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays an active role in our overall mental health. Low levels of serotonin have been found in individuals with depression. Inadequate production of serotonin can also lead to experiencing anxiety.

Prescription selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are a common approach to the treatment of these issues. Drugs in this category include Prozac and Zoloft.

For those who don’t wish to take prescription medication, CBD products could be a viable alternative. You should work with your doctor to explore whether this option may be right for you.

Some believe that CBD works on the endocannabinoid system by preventing cannabinoids from being broken down, allowing them to remain in the body longer and making them more effective in doing their job to promote emotional wellness. Those whose bodies don’t produce enough cannabinoids may also respond positively to the introduction of CBD.

It’s also possible that CBD may bind to a receptor that hasn’t been identified. CBD may also positively affect the regeneration of neurons in the hippocampus. This part of the brain tends to be smaller in those who suffer from anxiety and depression.

Before the passing of the Farm Bill in 2018, all cannabis substances, regardless of the amount of THC they contained, were considered to be a Schedule 1 drug, a category that includes heroin and ecstasy.

For this reason, there hasn’t been a lot of study on the effects of CBD before now. Hopefully, we’ll begin to see much more research in the coming years on the effectiveness of CBD in treating a wide variety of issues. 

Scientific Evidence

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of the specific studies that have been done regarding CBD and its impact on stress and anxiety.

A study on social anxiety and CBD demonstrated that individuals with a social anxiety disorder (SAD) could see a reduction in symptoms when using CBD. Brain scans showed a change in blood flow to parts of the brain that control anxiety in the study’s participants. Those who received 400 milligrams of CBD saw a reduction in anxiety, while those who took a placebo did not.

A National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) CBD study showed a reduction in stress in animals like rats. This has implications for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in humans.

Both behavioral and physical symptoms of anxiety were shown to improve in participants in this particular study. Another study conducted on animals in 2014 demonstrated anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects in conjunction with the use of CBD oil.

Various types of anxiety were shown to improve when subjects were treated with CBD oil in a 2015 analysis of previously conducted studies. Anxiety issues addressed included panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

This particular assessment did, however, note that conclusive results were only found regarding short-term anxiety. The long-term effects of CBD use on anxiety were not observed.

CBD can even help with specific stress-related symptoms such as those seen in post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Recent studies indicate that symptoms like replaying negative memories and nightmares were reduced through the use of cannabidiol.

It is thought that this occurs through the influence of CBD on the endocannabinoid system, particularly in the way emotional memories are processed within it.

CBD alone was shown to have a positive effect on these systems, as well as when CBD was used in conjunction with more traditional treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication use.

Side Effects of CBD

CBD offers many anecdotal and scientifically proven benefits. As indicated above, it can help people to manage their symptoms of anxiety and stress. However, as with most supplements and treatments, there are some potential side effects associated with CBD use. None are particularly dangerous, and not everyone will be affected.  

Side effects with CBD use are generally rare. It is essential to understand the potential for any of these issues and to talk to your physician before using products containing cannabidiol.

Some people may feel tired with the use of CBD oil. If you find this to be the case, try cutting back on the dose. Also, use caution when engaging in activities that require alertness, such as driving.

You could experience dry mouth. That’s because CBD can inhibit the endocannabinoid system receptors in salivary glands.

It’s possible that CBD could interact negatively with your prescribed medication. This is something that should be discussed with your doctor. In particular, CBD has been shown to have an effect on the metabolism of certain drugs in the liver.

Drugs that could have potentially harmful interactions with CBD include: 

  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Steroids
  • Antihistamines
  • Antibiotics
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-epileptics
  • Antiarrhythmics
  • NSAIDs
  • Anesthetics
  • Antipsychotics
  • Beta-blockers
  • Prokinetics
  • HIV antivirals 

This list isn’t comprehensive, and not all of these medications will cause issues for all patients. That’s why it’s always best to let your doctor know before taking a CBD product.

Dizziness or lightheadedness can occur in some users. This is often due to a drop in blood pressure. Typically, this isn’t dangerous, though it could be a problem for those with low blood pressure already. This is especially true for anyone currently taking medications for this condition. 

It’s also possible to experience some changes in appetite or weight. This was noted in a study conducted on participants who have epilepsy. Fortunately, these effects were found to be less severe than those experienced through typical medications for the disorder. It is good to be aware of the possibility, though.

Side effects of CBD use are rare and are usually minor. The benefits of CBD in the treatment of anxiety and stress outweigh the concern for most people. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of its success, and scientific evidence is building of the effectiveness of cannabidiol for lowering anxiety and improving overall wellness.