Move Over Anti-Anxiety Drugs, Cannabis Can Help

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According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada, one in four Canadians (25%) will have at least one anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Anxiety disorders comprise excessive and persistent feelings of apprehension, worry and even fear. Benzodiazepines, or “benzos,”—think Xanax, Ativan and Valium—are often prescribed to patients to help control various anxiety conditions.

Though adults of all ages take benzodiazepines, rates of use typically increase with older age. Approximately 19% of folks between the ages of 65–74 were on benzos; this number went up to 25% for those over age 85, according to a 2010 Canadian Institute of Health Information report. This is particularly problematic because benzodiazepine use is often linked to grogginess, which can cause an increase in falls and other accidents.

Benzodiazepines are intended to be used for a short time only. However, a significant percentage of individuals continue to take these powerful drugs for months and sometimes years on end.

Long-Term Risks of Taking Benzodiazepine for Anxiety

The risks of using benzos long term often outweigh the benefits. As well, long-term use can lead to an increase in tolerance that requires an increase in dose. Benzos taken in large doses—or in combination with alcohol—can cause death. Even in smaller doses, the anti-anxiety medication can lead to memory loss, over-sedation and suicidal thoughts.

In addition, benzodiazepines are often used in association with opioids, which can lead to further complications. Benzos increase respiratory suppression associated with opioids—meaning, they cause people to stop breathing. Between 1999 and 2004, the number of American middle-aged Caucasian woman who died from overdoses went up by 400%—they had mixed the two types of medications with dire results.

As well, a recent study by Stanford University and the University of California, which involved 315,428 people between 18 and 64, found increasing use of opioid painkillers in combination with anti-anxiety drugs during the years between 2001 and 2013. This combination appears to be a contributing factor in the continued rise in drug overdoses in Canada and the U.S.

Cannabis as an Alternative to Anti-Anxiety Medications

Cannabis can be an effective alternative to benzodiazepines. The medicinal plant has been used to treat anxiety and depression for more than 400 years. Though tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can cause an increase in anxiety due to its psychoactive properties, cannabidiol (CBD) can be extremely effective at reducing it. Of course, THC can be balanced with CBD in particular cannabis strains that work to decrease anxiety. Overall though, high CBD and low THC strains are found to be most effective at reducing anxiety.

A study completed in 2011 provided a breakthrough into how CBD can help patients with social anxiety disorder (SAD). Twenty-four patients with SAD, who’d never been treated, were either given a placebo or a dose of CBD before a public speaking test. Researchers monitored physiological measures to determine levels of anxiety during the public speaking test and found a significant decrease in anxiety levels among patients who received CBD. The physiological results were consistent with the self-surveys that subjects completed after the test.

Another 2011 study that was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that monitored the cerebral blood flow of participants after a CBD treatment. The patients in the study all had SAD. The study was limited and only included 10 participants, but it showed that patients treated with CBD experienced a decreased level of social anxiety after receiving the treatment, compared to those who took a placebo.

A Vanderbilt study published in Transitional Psychiatry looked at the role of anandamide in anxiety. Anandamide, an endocannabinoid that occurs naturally in the body—and often referred to as the “bliss” molecule, works to treat stress-induced anxiety.

Cannabinoids in cannabis work on the body’s endocannabinoid system in a similar way to endocannabinoids such as anandamide do. CBD can decrease production of fatty acid amide hydrolase, which is an enzyme that degrades anandamide; it works to preserve anandamide, helping the body decrease anxiety naturally.

All of these studies show that CBD is effective in treating anxiety when administered during clinical trials. All of these studies, which were completed on people, show how marijuana containing high levels of CBD can be taken by patients to reduce various anxiety conditions. CBD not only works to decrease anxiety, but also aids the body’s natural processes around reducing anxiety.

Do you have questions about anxiety medications and cannabis? Go to HelloMD's Answers page where you can connect with a health practitioner or well-informed member of our community who will respond to your queries.