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Published last month in Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, a team of experts from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), University of Calgary and The Rockefeller University summarized the current body of research on cannabis and anxiety.
As it turns out, despite marijuana’s wide range of effects, relief from anxiety and stress happens to be the most commonly reported reason for using marijuana.
“Cannabis and its derivatives have profound effects on a wide variety of behavioral and neural functions, ranging from feeding and metabolism to pain and cognition. However, epidemiological studies have indicated that the most common self-reported reason for using cannabis is rooted in its ability to reduce feelings of stress, tension, and anxiety.”
Studies involving THC also show that it “can reduce anxiety in patients with anxiety disorders,” continue the authors. On the other hand, too high of a dose can have the opposite effect in certain people.
But while marijuana has long been regarded as an effective stress reliever, recent research has focused on the neurological activity responsible for this effect. What scientists now know is that marijuana acts on a system in the brain called the endocannabinoid system.
Interestingly, the authors also note evidence that suggests anxiety disorders could be caused by abnormalities of this biological system.
“The discovery of the ECB (endocannabinoid) system raised the possibility that ECBs (endocannabinoids) could be important modulators of anxiety, and might contribute to individual differences in anxious temperament and risk for anxiety disorders.”
Among its various functions, the endocannabinoid system is believed to naturally regulate anxiety and stress levels. It does this through the release of chemicals that belong to the same class of chemicals found in marijuana: (endo)cannabinoids.
Though scientists have identified over 60 different cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, its main psychoactive ingredient, THC, is strikingly similar to one of the first endocannabinoids discovered in humans, anandamide.
By acting on the same pathways of the brain, both seem to hold promise as a treatment for stress and anxiety. So it’s no surprise that people who suffer from excessive stress are finding relief in marijuana, a phenomenon that scientists call “self-medicating.”
“Significant numbers of people may be self-medicating with cannabis in an attempt to reduce excessive anxiety.”
But whether cannabis is the best way of targeting the endocannabinoid system is still up for debate.
In fact, the authors of the latest report argue that raising the brain’s anandamide levels – by preventing its breakdown – may be a better therapeutic alternative, due to the “unwanted effects of cannabis (e.g. cognitive impairment, abuse liability).”
However, with no clinical trials of a drug that can do this, it may be a while until such an alternative is available.