Anxiety is a beast. I hate the heart-racing, hand-wringing, chest-tightening fear it causes. I also hate when people say “everything will be alright” though my head is saying “doom lies ahead”. There is no logic to it, but the emotion is very real.
Anxiety is important because it alerts us to dangerous or harmful situations. Though anxiety is a normal response to stress, it can become a debilitating disease. Anxiety disorder affects approximately 40 million U.S. adults, according to the The Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Symptoms include intrusive thoughts and physical ailments, including high blood pressure, muscle tension, insomnia, panic attacks, and digestive issues. Women are generally more afflicted than men. Anxiety affects children, too.
Luckily, anxiety is treatable. Doctors prescribe antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines), even heart medications to help control racing thoughts and ease physical discomforts. Non-pharmaceutical treatments include psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy. These treatments work, but there are drawbacks. Medications may have unwanted side effects, including addiction. Therapy is costly and health insurance coverage is often limited.
For those of us with a low-level hum of worry or occasional bouts of fixated concern, there is a more natural alternative treatment: cannabis. Here is why and how it helps:
Cannabis contains chemicals that make us feel better.
In the early 1990s, scientists discovered a new body system present in all mammals: the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). Like any body system, the ECS has a specific function for survival. It maintains homeostasis, or balance, in the presence of stress. It does this by interacting with other systems on many complicated levels. Cannabinoids are the chemicals that interact with the ECS. Our bodies produce “endocannabinoids”. “Phytocannabinoids” are found in plants. The ECS maintains a healthy mind and body through the interaction of cannabinoids, hormones and neurotransmitters.
Cannabis in low doses can be taken safely without causing addiction.
CBD is the key cannabinoid for anxiety. CBDa may even be better.
You have probably heard a lot about CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabinoid. People say it is miracle cure for everything, and there is some truth to this. As an anti-inflammatory, CBD alleviates a major cause of stress throughout our bodies. It also plays a key role in maintaining our endocannabinoid levels. CBD protects and generates neurons, necessary for optimal mood regulation. Finally, CBD helps regulate our own feel-good hormones, serotonin and gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA).
CBDa is the raw form of CBD (CBD is formed by heating CBDa). CBDa appears to have stronger therapeutic properties than CBD, especially regarding inflammation and serotonin regulation. CBDa products can be difficult to find, but you can access CBDa by juicing high CBD cannabis plants. FYI, there is a raw form of THC, too, called THCa, which is present in all raw cannabis and is not psychoactive.
Choose your products carefully.
CBD products are everywhere, offered online and even at your local health food store. But be wary: not all CBD-containing products are created equal.
CBD is usually derived from hemp, cannabis plants that have high levels of CBD but contain less than 0.3% THC (all cannabis plants contain some THC). Hemp-derived CBD is available online and in stores. CBD can also be extracted from cannabis plants with greater than 0.3% THC (most cannabis plants bred for recreational use). CBD from THC-containing cannabis is only available in dispensaries. Both types of CBD products can be therapeutic. It depends upon whether you want any THC in your product.
The entourage effect.
It is important to note that THC in high doses can cause paranoia and increase anxiety. But a small amount of THC in your CBD product will increase the therapeutic benefit of the CBD. This synergistic interplay of chemicals is called the “entourage effect“. Hemp-derived CBD, with it’s small amount of THC, will not get you even a little bit high. CBD derived from THC-containing cannabis also has little or no euphoric effect. It depends upon the concentration of the cannabinoids and ratio of CBD to THC in those products.
What to look for when buying CBD.
Like herbal supplements, hemp-derived CBD products are not tested for potency and impurities. CBD derived from THC-containing cannabis is strictly regulated and products are rigorously tested for safety and cannabinoid content. Purchase these products only in dispensaries in states that have legal cannabis laws. Both types of products are effective, but you really need to know which brands are reputable and what to look for in terms of safety. Below are some tips:
- Most online CBD products are made from an isolated form of the compound. Extracting the chemical you want from the rest of the plant sounds like a good idea, but this is not always the case with cannabis. As mentioned above, cannabis has many beneficial compounds that work better together. Products labeled “whole-plant” retain their natural chemical balance. Products labeled “isolate” or “distillate” have had CBD removed from the plant. Sometimes it is reconstitued with other herbs and chemicals to mimic the natural composition. They call this “full-spectrum”.
- Make sure your CBD was grown organically in the U.S. Cannabis and hemp, in particular, are bioaccumulators that leech heavy metals and other toxic substances from the soil. How the cannabis is removed from the plant also matters, as harmful chemicals are used by less reputable brands. It is best to consume only products for which you can check the Certificate of Analysis (COA), published on the website if not on the packaging (FYI, this is not required for hemp products, but a reputable company will have this info readily available to the public).
Integrate your cannabis into your healthy lifestyle.
We are highly diverse, complex beings, and there is no one path to health and wellness for everyone. Cannabis is best for anxiety when integrated with other healthy lifestyle choices. You can support your ECS in the following ways, which are also useful for relieving anxiety:
- Maintain a healthy diet – include good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids
- Eat dark chocolate! Chocolate and cacao have cannabinoid-like substances, documented health benefits and taste delicious!
- Limit alcohol consumption – alcohol is a toxin that taxes the ECS; it increases the intoxicating effects of THC; and it worsens anxiety
- Limit caffeine
- Spice up your diet with herbs and teas – herbs and tea leaves contain terpenes and flavinoids, which are also found in cannabis and contribute to the entourage effect
- Do not smoke tobacco or use illicit drugs
- Exercise – raises anandamide levels!
- Hang out with friends
- Get a massage or other body work
- Go to acupuncture as frequently as you can
- Work with a medical cannabis consultant on dosing – in general, start low and increase as necessary until you realize what works best for you
Written by Sheri Matteo, MSN, RN, CNM
As a Certified Nurse-Midwife, Sheri Matteo is passionate about women’s health with over 20yrs experience in clinical care. She believes in an integrated approach to wellness that includes the four pillars of education, nutrition, exercise and meditation. Cannabis can play an important role in establishing and maintaining physiological balance, supporting the above. As a member of both the American College of Nurse-Midwives and the American Cannabis Nurses Association, Sheri is dedicated to providing women the most up to date information about cannabis for health and access to quality products.