A new pilot study from Australia found that young people with treatment-resistant anxiety responded overwhelmingly well to a 12-week treatment with cannabidiol (CBD).
The open-label trial, completed by Orygen, Australia’s center for excellence in youth mental health, studied both the efficacy and safety of CBD in treating severe anxiety. The study included 31 participants aged 12 to 25 with a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder and reported an average 42.6% reduction in anxiety severity and impairment following the treatment.
All participants had previously received standard anxiety treatment, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or anti-depressant medication, but experienced no clinical improvement.
Study investigator and Orygen Executive Director, professor Patrick McGorry said their findings hold promise for young people struggling with treatment-resistant anxiety.
“The young people had fewer panic attacks and could do things which they were previously unable to do like leave the house, go to school, participate in social situations, eat in restaurants, take public transport or attend appointments by themselves,” Amminger added.
According to the World Health Organization, anxiety remains one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents. The CDC reported over 5 million young Americans were diagnosed with anxiety between 2016 and 2019.
Typical anti-depressant treatment for anxiety involves selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). While effective for some, the drugs often take several weeks to achieve their effect and can also cause a wide range of side effects including indigestion, diarrhea or constipation, fluctuations in weight, dizziness, and sexual dysfunction.
Study participants took up to 800mg of CBD per day and the researchers observed only minimal side effects during treatment.
“The most common side-effects were mild sedation and mild fatigue but that was at the time when doses were increased and usually went away after a couple of days,” Amminger said. “We did not see side-effects like suicidal thoughts, irritability or sleep problems, which are not uncommon in people taking SSRIs.”
Amminger also stressed that because CBD is non-intoxicating, it didn’t lead to the emergence of any “neurological or psychiatric manifestations.”
“In fact, [CBD] has been used to treat addictive behaviors in other research trials and can reduce some of the adverse and intoxicating effects of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol],” he said.
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CBD May Help in More Ways Than One
In addition to the general anti-anxiety and calming effects seen in Amminger and McGorry’s research, other studies have found that CBD may be used to treat anxiety disorders in different ways as well.
A new Brazilian report on female rats found that CBD can disrupt the storage of “bad” memories by blocking a process known as “reconsolidation,” where re-called memories may have details added or lost as they are re-stored in the brain.
In the case of traumatic memories that can trigger anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), CBD can destabilize this process and prevent them from being stored properly, thus reducing the amount of anxiety and stress the memory typically causes.
The study authors found that CBD consistently helped reduce the number of time rats spent frozen in fear and anxiety when exposed to previously traumatizing environments.
“Our results encourage pilot and large-scale clinical trials with CBD to assess its therapeutic value in disrupting abnormally persistent, distressing aversive memories and associated symptoms,” the study authors said.
Although both studies showed promising findings, further research is required.
“[For us] the next step is a randomized controlled trial, which is the gold standard to test a new intervention,” Amminger said. “Such a trial needs to be done in a much larger group – around 200 to 250 young people – to enable us to say with some certainty that there is, or is not, real treatment benefits and effects.”
Nonetheless, the remarkable results seen with CBD make it a top candidate for further research as it holds tremendous potential in treating the rise in anxiety-related disorders.
“We’re seeing more and more young people experiencing anxiety – it’s the fastest growing form of mental ill-health in young people and we urgently need innovation in treatment,” McGorry said. “[CBD] is a promising treatment option which appears safe and effective. We need further research to confirm this and explore its value.”
Calvin Chan is a researcher and medical writer from Edmonton, Canada. As a big science nerd, he loves reading and writing about everything science - from cannabis to dark matter and even alien life. Calvin has a PhD from the University of Alberta.