Ask people why they have turned to medical cannabis and a majority will indicate stress and anxiety. Since 2018, patients using the RYAH Data ecosystem have logged more than 48,000 sessions for stress relief and another 57,000 sessions for anxiety.
Patient surveys support the data gathered from these RYAH Data sessions. In 2014, a survey among registered Hawaiian medical cannabis patients reported 50 percent found that the plant alleviated stress and anxiety. A 2016 analysis from an online survey of more than 1,400 medical cannabis patients found 50.6 percent of men and 66.6 percent of women used cannabis for anxiety.
How Cannabinoids Impact Stress and Anxiety
With so many people seeking relief from stress and anxiety from cannabis, research has begun to investigate the biological mechanism behind these effects. A recent study published in 2020 in Neuron is one of the most promising. The authors behind this publication have started to unpack the relationship between the endocannabinoid system, stress, and cannabinoid molecules.
The authors discovered a stress-dependent connection between the amygdala and the frontal cortex areas of the brain. As per author Sachin Patel, MD, Ph.D., “The circuit between the amygdala and the frontal cortex has been shown to be stronger in individuals with certain types of anxiety disorders. As people or animals are exposed to stress and get more anxious, these two brain areas glue together, and their activity grows stronger together.”
The stronger the activity between these two areas, the more likely there will be a ‘collapse’ of endocannabinoid function and subsequently of stress regulation. The authors theorize that treatments that increase the production of 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), a naturally produced cannabinoid, could improve anxiety response by rebuilding the endocannabinoid system.
So what does this have to do with cannabis and the more than 100 different cannabinoids? 2-AG is the most abundant endocannabinoid in the human body. It interacts with moderate-to-low affinity to both cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, and is likely produced on demand.
While there is no simple comparison between a single specific cannabinoid and 2-AG, cannabinoids in general seem to support a well-functioning endocannabinoid system. Phytocannabinoids (like THC and CBD) interact within the very same network of cannabinoid receptors that endocannabinoids do for similar effects. This is why cannabinoids target conditions like pain, inflammation, and low mood, all of which are linked to endocannabinoid balance.
Cannabinoids could reduce stress and inflammation by preventing the breakdown of endocannabinoid function between the amygdala and the frontal cortex. More research explicitly exploring THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids is urgently required.
Cannabidiol for Stress and Anxiety
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a prevalent cannabinoid found in both THC-rich medical cannabis and hemp-type cultivars. This mellow molecule doesn’t create intoxication or any of the perception-altering effects linked to THC. Because it’s usually derived from hemp, it’s also much more readily available as a pharmaceutical and an ingredient in thousands of wellness products.
While the wellness industry tends to make questionable claims about the health benefits of CBD, there is some merit to the CBD-as-stress-reliever label slapped on many products. If the growing number of studies is anything to go by, CBD may offer substantial relief from stress and anxiety.
One of the most famous studies to this end came from researchers out of Brazil in 2011. In this study, researchers worked with people with diagnosed social anxiety and subjected them to a simulated public speaking test. Divided into a CBD group and a placebo, the CBD group had measurably less anxiety before and during the speech than their peers.
According to the peer-reviewed study, “Pretreatment with CBD significantly reduced anxiety, cognitive impairment and discomfort in their speech performance, and significantly decreased alert in their anticipatory speech.”
A 2019 investigation into CBD found it a useful option for sleep issues related to anxiety. The results come from 72 patients reporting both anxiety and problems sleeping. A majority of patients received 25 mg of CBD a day in capsule form.
The researchers reported almost 80 percent of patients demonstrated lower anxiety starting within the first month of the study, which lasted for the duration. Additionally, 66 percent of patients slept better, although this measure tended to fluctuate somewhat.
Cannabis for Stress, Proven by Patients
When it comes to figuring out why so many people find stress relief from cannabis, science is once again playing a game of catch-up.
Thus far, researchers have found that endocannabinoid signaling is responsible for regulating our stress response. They’ve also determined certain cannabinoids, like CBD, seem to have a substantial effect on anxiety. Still, there is a lot left unknown about how cannabis and its many cannabinoids work within the endocannabinoid system for these reported benefits.
With thousands of people relying on the plant for the medicinal relief of stress and anxiety daily, it’s now up to researchers to determine the mechanism of action. As medical and recreational cannabis continues to expand into everyday life, urgent scientific attention is needed.