Anxiety. It’s that awful, gnawing feeling of worry, tension, and fear of the unknown. It’s a spiraling emotion that can become so overwhelming that you feel a panic attack coming on and sometimes wonder if you’re going to die. It can hit quickly and cause symptoms like dizziness, a rapid heart rate, or a sense that you’re losing control. There are plenty of available medications to address these symptoms but many of the anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals that are typically prescribed come with array of unpleasant side effects including:

  • blurry vision.
  • confusion.
  • dizziness.
  • drowsiness or fatigue.
  • headaches.
  • loss of memory or concentration.
  • problems with balance, coordination, or speech.
  • an upset stomach.

The good news is that traditional pharmaceuticals aren’t the only place to turn these days. Products containing CBD compounds are cropping up everywhere with rave reviews about their ability to support mental health, among other conditions. But do they work, and if so, how? To better comprehend CBD’s effect on anxiety, it’s essential to have an understanding of CBD as well as the body’s Endocannabinoid System (ECS).

WHAT IS CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of 133 identified cannabinoids, or compounds, found in both hemp and marijuana. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is another naturally occurring cannabinoid in these plants and has psychoactive traits. While THC is the major active ingredient in marijuana, hemp contains only very small amounts of THC. Most CBD products are extracted from hemp and have no psychoactive effects.

Although there is still much research to be done on the endocannabinoid system (ECS), this much is clear: CBD from hemp plants and THC from marijuana plants interact in some way with an individual’s ECS. As the term “CBD” becomes more widely known, people across the world are becoming more aware of this product’s therapeutic benefits.

It’s important to understand that hemp CBD will not cause someone to feel high, unlike its psychoactive counterpart marijuana. In fact, the World Health Organization has declared products like CBD oil to be safe and worth researching.

CBD is available in oils, tinctures, sprays, balms, edibles, capsules, vapes, soaks and bath salts. It’s also available for your pets in the form of chews, sprays and oil, and is mostly used in treating anxiety.

CBD is often used to address anxiety, and for patients who suffer from insomnia (a common complaint from anxiety sufferers), studies suggest that CBD may help with both falling asleep and staying asleep. A study from the European Journal of Pain showed, using an animal model, CBD could help support healthy inflammation responses in arthritis sufferers. Another study showed promise in the areas of neuropathic inflammatory. In all instances, more studies on CBD’s therapeutic effect on humans are still warranted.

HOW DOES THE ECS WORK?

The ECS is believed to control a broad array of bodily functions, including mood, appetite, stress, sleep, metabolism, body temperature, memory, immune function, pain sensation, and reproduction. Communication occurs through a class of compounds called endocannabinoids, which are messengers (neurotransmitters) produced naturally by the body that attach to special receptors. CBD and THC, which are plant-based but chemically similar to endocannabinoids, also interact with these receptors.

Your brain controls your body’s reaction to stress and the ECS system can hit the brakes if things get crazy. But in some instances, the ECS can’t solve the problem on its own and conditions like stress get out of control. That’s when problems arise.

“Stress doesn’t only make us feel awful emotionally,” says Jay Winner, MD, author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life and director of the Stress Management Program for Sansum Clinic in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It can also exacerbate just about any health condition you can think of.”

Stress can cause or worsen conditions like obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma. And chronic stress can lead to long-term, serious health conditions.

Enter CBD: Research indicates that the cannabinoids that are found naturally in CBD can bind to the body’s cannabinoid receptors and modulate body functions in the same way as endocannabinoid. When we take CBD, we are supplementing a naturally-occurring cannabinoid system.

HOW DOES THE ECS AFFECT ANXIETY?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety affects an estimated one in five adults, most of whom never seek professional help. That’s a lot of people suffering from anxiety of one kind or another.

So what exactly does the ECS have to do with controlling anxiety? Here’s a simplified explanation: When a person is under stress, their body activates a response that is mostly controlled by the adrenal glands. A person under extreme stress might sweat, breathe quicker, experience chest pain, be lightheaded, and feel anxious. Researchers know that the ECS is closely integrated with the adrenal system and that the two systems work together to determine how we react to stress.

A healthy ECS is like a skilled driver who is able to negotiate all sorts of curves and obstacles. But an ECS that’s out of whack makes an individual more vulnerable to stress and all the unpleasantries that accompany it.

Everyday Health notes that the ECS was possibly developed over 500 million years ago, but only recently have researchers discovered its existence and main function: to maintain a balanced, neutral state called homeostasis. When it comes to stress, the ECS works mostly with circuits in the brain that trigger real or perceived dangers.

The result can be a trigger for anxiety or the launch of a fight-or-flight response. Endocannabinoids are involved in keeping the portion of the brain that triggers these “threats” less active so that the brain doesn’t don’t produce stress or anxiety in the absence of a real threat. CBD products like those sold by Bespoke Extracts can support that response.

Researchers know the ECS plays a major role in keeping your internal processes stable. But there is much more to learn.

WHY SHOULD WE MANAGE OUR ANXIETY?

Did you know that anxiety is one of the most common and most treatable forms of mental illness? Anxiety helps us respond to danger and it can help us deal with life’s challenges. It can also make us sick. The Mental Health Foundation of the UK offers this unique explanation of anxiety:

“The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture. Even as anxiety is experienced at a spiritual and psychological level, it is scientifically measurable at the molecular level and the physiological level. It is produced by nature and it is produced by nurture. It’s a psychological phenomenon and a sociological phenomenon. In computer terms, it’s both a hardware problem (I’m wired badly) and a software problem (I run faulty logic programs that make me think anxious thoughts)”.

In other words, it’s normal and it’s not. It’s a normal part of everyday lives and the “right” amount of anxiety can spur us to push harder and do better. But too much anxiety over too long a time can make us sick, resulting in panic attacks and phobias.

A survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that one in five people feel anxiety nearly “all of the time, or “a lot of the time.” It also noted that more than half of those surveyed believed people are under more stress today than they were five years ago.

In the United Kingdom, 2.6 percent of the population experience depression, 4.7 percent have anxiety problems, and 9.7 percent suffer mixed depression and anxiety, making it the most prevalent mental health problem in the population as a whole. What’s more, 1.2 percent of the UK population experience panic disorders, 1.9 percent of British adults experience a phobia of some description, and women are twice as likely to be affected by this problem as men.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects 2.6 percent of men and 3.3 percent of women, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD) affect around 2–3 percent of the population and Generalised Anxiety Disorder affects between 2–5 percent of the population.

According to the Brightfield Group which compiles data on CBD and cannabis, a review of social media posts on the company’s Social Media Listening Dashboard over four months showed that anxiety is the No. 1 ailment reported by CBD users. Another third report depression, and 25 percent report insomnia. Of those who use CBD for anxiety, 47 percent use 50 mg or less, 41 percent pay less than $30 per product, and 39 percent use CBD five or more times a week.

In fact, a survey of 5,000 people by Brightfield found that more than 60 percent of CBD users have taken it to treat anxiety symptoms.

That’s a lot of anxiety!

WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS WITH PHARMACEUTICALS FOR ANXIETY?

When it comes to pharmacological treatment of anxiety, antidepressants are the current drug of choice. It’s important to note that drugs don’t cure anxiety itself but make the symptoms easier to manage so day-to-day life is easier to handle.

These drugs are broken down into several categories. Here’s a brief summary of the most common medications and their possible side effects:

SSRIs work by increasing levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, sexual desire, appetite, sleep, and memory. The patient’s dose usually starts out low and goes up. Side effects include:

  • nausea
  • dry mouth
  • muscle weakness
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • sexual dysfunction

Tricyclics are less-used older drugs for anxiety disorders. Similar to SSRIs, the dosage generally starts out low and gets higher. Side effects are:

  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • lack of energy
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • constipation
  • weight gain

MAOIS are used to treat panic disorders and social phobias. These older drugs come with an array of side effects. For example, you can’t drink red wine or eat cheese. Some birth control pills, pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, cold and allergy medications, and herbal supplements can react with MAOIs. Side effects are:

  • increased blood pressure
  • dangerous reactions with other medications

Beta Blockers are used off-label to treat the symptoms of anxiety. Side effects are:

  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • dry mouth
  • trouble sleeping
  • nausea
  • shortness of breath

Benzodiazepines are used in the short-term treatment of anxiety but can be habit-forming. Side effects are:

  • confusion
  • vision problems
  • headaches
  • depression
  • impaired balance and memory
  • drowsiness

Buspirone is used to treat short-term and chronic anxiety and may take several weeks to become effective. Side effects are:

  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • strange dreams
  • insomnia

A quick review of the list of these common anxiety pharmaceuticals shows they share a glaring commonality: long lists of unpleasant and sometimes dangerous drug-related side effects. In some instances, a patient may have no recourse but to balance the pros and cons of taking the drug because it appears to be the only way to alleviate their symptoms.

But with the introduction of CBD, new and innovative options for managing the symptoms of anxiety are now possibilities.

Although research is still limited, the promise that CBD offers patients in maintaining a healthy stress response is reason for great hope. Numerous studies have indicated a positive effect on those suffering from anxiety with few or extremely mild side effects, like fatigue and irritability.

At this time, the only CBD product officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration is a prescription oil called Epidiolex for treating two types of childhood epilepsy. However, research is underway to study CBD as a treatment for a wide range of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and anxiety. Research supporting the drug’s benefits is still limited.

While the benefits of CBD continue to be explored, this also opens up an unregulated market within the CBD industry, which offers a variety of products containing CBD for a variety of uses. It is of note that the FDA does not regulate the safety and purity of dietary supplements, and not all states require manufacturers to properly label their products. Reading labels on CBD products is important so you have a clear understanding of how much CBD the product contains.

A 2017 study that reviewed the labels of CBD products found that nearly 70 percent of the CBD products they analyzed contained less CBD than labeled. Forty-percent of the 84 products examined were “under-labeled,” meaning they contained more CBD than their label indicated. In addition, approximately 25 percent were “over-labeled,” meaning they contained less than the label stated, potentially negating any therapeutic effect. That’s why it is especially important to use reliable CBD brands known for their quality control. Look for brands that offer CBD (not simply hemp oil or hemp extracts) and have their certificate of analysis readily available to you on their website.

The CBD market is expanding and developing quickly, as research continues to reveal new ways that CBD is proving to have therapeutic qualities that make life better by addressing conditions like anxiety, that have historically been treated with traditional medications with numerous side effects.