New science hints at potential future uses for CBD

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Cannabis is, quite rightly, creating plenty of news headlines at the moment – and not just in the United States. In 2018, Canada became the second nation to legalize the herb for recreational use, following Uruguay. And after Michigan’s vote to legalize weed in November of the same year, there will soon be 10 states in the US that have completely legalized, and more than 30 where cannabis is permitted medicinally.

However, the changing attitudes toward marijuana would not have been possible without the great leaps in scientific research over recent years. The stigma surrounding cannabis is gradually being chipped away, as scientists get up to speed on the effects that various cannabinoids have in the body. There is massive intrigue at present in a non-psychoactive cannabinoid called cannabidiol (CBD) – while the compound is not new to researchers, the discovery of the endocannabinoid system in the 1990s has enabled them to learn much more about it.

CBD has a long list of therapeutic uses, but it is the anti-seizure properties of the cannabinoid which makes it such a remarkable treatment for intractable epilepsy in children. These conditions are untreatable with traditional anti-epilepsy medication, causing many patients to suffer more than 100 seizures per week. However, cannabis oil treatment rich in CBD has allowed a lot of these children to live normal lives, almost seizure free.

As a non-psychoactive substance, CBD does not have the intoxicating, mind-altering impact that is synonymous with typical cannabis – an effect caused by another cannabinoid in the herb, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The medicinal potential of THC is not to be ignored, but its psychoactive nature makes it much more difficult to treat children and other vulnerable patients with. That said, THC looks to be a promising treatment for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as it may help to delete negative memories, reducing the severity of flashbacks.

Cannabis has more than 100 identified cannabinoids so far, and it will take many years before the effects all of these have on the endocannabinoid system and the body are thoroughly understood.

But in this article, our focus is going to be on CBD, and the ground-breaking research being conducted in the United States and beyond.

Using CBD to combat anxiety

Anxiety is a complex mental disorder which seems to affect people in different ways. The condition can be extremely frustrating, as the mental blocks that come with it can make the most mundane of tasks, such as answering the phone, a living nightmare. Patients with anxiety tend to find themselves thinking negatively, while suffering from increased self-consciousness and low self-esteem – this is often a result of overanalyzing situations and getting stuck in worst-case scenario thinking. 

The thought patterns that a person with anxiety may experience may be completely irrational, but for those who it affects severely, these can feel very real and be very hard to overcome. Almost 4 percent of the global population are affected by anxiety, according to an estimation from the World Health Organization (WHO). Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the same drugs that are used to treat depression, are regularly prescribed to anxiety patients, although their effectiveness is fiercely debated.

However, new research indicates that CBD may be a powerful antidote to anxiety, primarily by having a soothing influence on the brain, which manages the overthinking associated with anxiety. CBD helps to reset the delicate brain balance between excitation and inhibition. Overexcited brains are prone to firing off too many nerve impulses, which results in excessive thinking and subsequent anxiety. CBD manages this by increasing the flow of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitters in the brain. In addition to calming anxiety, GABA also helps to boost mood and enhance sleep. CBD also happens to be a partial agonist of the 5-HT1A receptor. While outside of the endocannabinoid system, this receptor is implicated with anxiety – studies have shown that mice lacking the 5-HT1A receptor experience increased levels of anxiety.

More clinical research on CBD and anxiety is needed before the cannabinoid can be definitively claimed as a working treatment, but a 2011 study on treatment-naïve anxiety patients was very encouraging. The investigation subjected the participants to a simulated public speaking test after taking a 600mg dose of CBD or a placebo, in randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled conditions. The results showed that the group given CBD enjoyed an anxiety reduction beyond that of the placebo – discomfort and cognitive impairment during the speech was reduced, along with other factors. The study’s findings are particularly promising for people with social anxiety.

While the Italian study used gelatin capsules to administer the CBD, the delayed effects of oral ingestion is not necessarily the most efficient way to manage anxiety. Rather, the faster response time of CBD vape oil and e-liquid, which becomes active just seconds after consumption, is more likely to tackle acute anxiety symptoms and panic attacks. Those hesitant to vape may prefer to take CBD oil, which also begins to work within minutes. 

CBD: the answer to depression?

Medical researchers studying depression have reason to be optimistic once again. The mood disorder is a huge global concern,with more than 300 million affected worldwide, and almost 800,000 recorded suicides every year, according to the WHO. However, there has been no new class of drugs to treat depression, since SSRIs, which were first prescribed in the 1980s. While drugs like Prozac and Zoloft work for some, the complexity of the condition means they aren’t effective for everyone. Furthermore, scientists are not even sure precisely how SSRIs treat depression.

However, some studies and brain scans now show that depression is not a chemical imbalance issue, but a result of brain inflammation. Areas such as the hippocampus, which controls memory, emotion and motivation, along with the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are structurally damaged in depressed patients. But CBD, and possibly other cannabinoids, may be able to reverse these effects. The peer-reviewed journal PLOS One published a study in 2011 showing that CBD reduces neuroinflammation and promotes hippocampal neurogenesis.

Neuroscience researchers from Brazil and Denmark combined for a study released in 2018 which showed that CBD could repair neuronal circuity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus of rodents, and this facilitated antidepressant-like behavior. The study highlighted the possible benefits of CBD over SSRIs, in that the treatment started to work after treatment, whereas SSRIs can take two weeks or longer before benefits are noticeable. The rats were given just one dose, and it took up to seven days before an increase in synaptic proteins – a sign of depression in humans – were observed by the researchers.

CBD for inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a notorious condition, which causes diarrhea, bleeding ulcers, stomach pain and several more unpleasant symptoms. IBD affects the digestive system, and scientists are yet to find a cure for the illness. Cases of IBD have gradually increased in North America and Europe since the 1950s, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimating in 2015 that the condition affects 3 million Americans. According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), between 60 to 75 percent of patients with Crohn’s disease, a form of IBD, require surgery.

But a study featured in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2018 found that endocannabinoids are essential for preventing intestinal inflammation in mice. The researchers note that this is the first time a cannabis mechanism has been identified to explain why some cannabis users report a therapeutic effect on using the herb to treat Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. CBD increases levels of two vital endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) by stifling the degradation process carried out by catabolic enzymes. 

Effective relief against IBD would require a CBD treatment that is orally ingested and therefore gets into the intestines, such as CBD edibles. This type of CBD can also be more cost-effective, as the benefits last several hours before another dose needs to be taken.

Final thoughts

It is certainly an exciting time for cannabis science, and we are likely to find out much more about the necessity of endocannabinoid system regulation in the coming years – and CBD is a critical cannabinoid for achieving that regulation.

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