Could Cannabis Ever Replace Anti-Anxiety Medications?
Recent studies have shown that regular cannabis use could make a person less prone to anxiety, even when they’re sober. The study found that people who consume marijuana multiple times a week had a decreased stress reaction when exposed to a high-pressure situation even after a period of abstinence from marijuana. The non-cannabis users who participated in the study admitted to feeling anxious and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while cannabis users reported low levels of anxiety and their cortisol levels stayed the same during a high-stress situation. The study involved 42 people who have used cannabis less than ten times in their lives and zero times within the past year along with 40 people who have consumed cannabis habitually over the past year. All participants refrained from using cannabis from 12 to 18 hours before the study.
“Based on our findings, the potential effects of cannabis on stress do appear to extend beyond the period of intoxication, but we’re not yet comfortable saying whether that muted stress response is a good thing or a bad thing.” Dr. Carrie Cuttler, researcher and clinical assistant professor at Washington State University and co-author of the study, told Leafly.
We know too much cortisol is definitely a bad thing. It has been linked to numerous issues such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, insomnia, and memory problems. Too little cortisol can also be troublesome, since the hormone helps us use stored energy and react appropriately in high-stress situations. Cuttler says extensive research is needed to determine whether the lowered cortisol level shown in chronic cannabis users is harmful or helpful when it comes to managing anxiety long-term. Cuttler stated that they did, however, make a promising finding regarding cannabis and dependency.
“We looked at the withdrawal symptoms of chronic users to see if they experienced heightened levels of cannabis cravings when stressed,” she says, “and surprisingly, we didn’t find any evidence that they did.”
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States. Approximately 40 million American adults are affected by anxiety disorders every year. That’s over 18% of the population suffering from anxiety disorders.
There is a long list of prescription medications used for depression, anxiety, and panic attacks such as Xanax, Klonopin, and Zoloft. While these medications are highly effective short term, they also come with countless negative side effects ranging from headaches to insomnia, low libido, and increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
Anxiety is one of the most commonly reported reasons for cannabis use, and research implies that it has low potential for addiction and virtually no risk of an overdose, unlike the prescription medications commonly used to treat anxiety. Marijuana remains classified as a schedule 1 drug at a federal level, therefore little research has been done to explore the long-term potential of cannabis to treat anxiety – until Cuttler’s recent study. Cuttler and her team plan on holding another study with a longer period of cannabis abstinence to see if their results are still accurate. They also are interested in repeating the study with rats in the future.
“One of the limitations of this research is that we can’t ethically manipulate who uses cannabis daily and who does not,” Cuttler says. “So while our research indicates that they have a blunted stress response, it could be that people who are already less prone to stress are also more prone to being chronic cannabis users. With rats, we can manipulate both stress and cannabis.”
While all this new research sounds promising, Cuttler states that when it comes to anxiety, neither marijuana nor pharmaceuticals should ever be the first course of treatment.
“As a psychologist, I believe Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the ideal treatment for anxiety,” Cuttler says. “In the short term, anti-anxiety meds and CBT have equivalent outcomes, but long-term, the effects of 8 to 10 CBT sessions outlast those of medications without any of the negative side effects. I see cannabis the same way – it may help treat the symptoms of anxiety, but it won’t address the root cause.”