Marijuana and its use for recreational and medical purposes is a hotly debated topic. Marijuana has a history of controversy in the United States, and it has long been seen as a dangerous illicit drug. Though research has opened the door for its potential therapeutic use and it may be that marijuana is actually a drug with negatives and positives like many substances that are used recreationally and medicinally.
Regardless of the debate, marijuana’s popularity is growing, and public perception of the drug shifts. In the 2020 election, every state that had marijuana legalization or decriminalization on the ballot got it passed. And the trend of legalization may only grow. One positive effect legalization has is that it opens up the door for more research as scientists have fewer barriers to taking a closer look at the substance. Though many studies have been performed, there is still a lot we don’t know about marijuana and how it affects the brain.
Still, many people are turning to it for its potential therapeutic effects when it comes to anxiety, pain, and other ailments. Anxiety is one of the most common problems Americans deal with, affecting 40 million adults each year. Could marijuana be another tool in the belt of doctors and clinicians that treat anxious patients? Or is it a potential harm that only makes anxiety problems worse?
Marijuana is a drug that comes from a few species of Cannabis plants, including Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa. The drug contains a number of active ingredients called cannabinoids. These chemicals can have an effect on your brain and body when you take marijuana, but we don’t know everything about how these chemicals work. Two of the most prominent cannabinoids in marijuana are cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Both of these chemicals can interact with your body’s endocannabinoid system, which helps to regulate homeostasis, which is your body’s internal balance. This system is designed to manage everything from your body temperature, circadian rhythm, heart rate, appetite, and many other things. Once THC and CBD bind with the receptors in the endocannabinoid system, they can start to affect the brain and body in different ways.
THC is the active ingredient that’s most commonly associated with the marijuana high. It may also cause an increase in your appetite, heart rate, and suppress memory. CBD isn’t associated with a high, but it may cause some other effects throughout the body and brain. Very high doses of THC may be the cause of some adverse effects like psychosis, especially in people with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. A 2013 study found that CBD might actually counteract some of the harmful effects of THC when they’re taken together in a typical dose of marijuana.
Today’s illicit marijuana may have more THC than CBD. Since THC is the active ingredient that causes the high, growers and dealers have an interest in elevated THC levels to increase potency. Growing plants with more THC can mean shipping profitable supplies in smaller packages. This highly potent marijuana with low CBD levels might cause uncomfortable side effects and psychotic symptoms in high doses.
Legal marijuana from states that allow recreational or medical use may be more easily standardized with a better balance of both THC and CBD.
With the wave of legalization over the past several years, new research has emerged about the potential benefits and harms of marijuana use. There are also calls for more research as legal marijuana use increases and marijuana companies hit the market.
There are many reported benefits of medical marijuana use, including reduced nausea, increased appetite, and decreased pain and inflammation. The drug has been used to treat cancer patients for years. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy often cause nausea, pain, and appetite suppression, and marijuana has helped to alleviate discomfort. Marijuana may also be used to treat neuropathic pain, which can be tricky to treat with traditional painkillers.
But what can marijuana do for anxiety?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved marijuana for medical use, but it has approved the use of CBD in specific cases. Still, you can get marijuana-based medications that doctors prescribe off-label, which is a term used to describe when a doctor uses medication for something beyond the purpose stated on the label. One of these off-label uses is anxiety.
Marijuana is said to help facilitate relaxation, calmness and improve sleep. It’s sometimes used to treat social anxiety, agoraphobia, PTSD, panic disorders, and anxiety-related sleep disorders. However, marijuana has a complicated effect on anxiety and it seems to help some and make others worse. However, marijuana-induced anxiety seems to be related to higher doses of THC and low doses of CBD.
In fact, CBD may be helpful in treating anxiety on its own. According to a 2015 review, CBD may have therapeutic benefits when it comes to anxiety, though it also called for more study. The review from The American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics states, “Current evidence indicates CBD has considerable potential as a treatment for multiple anxiety disorders, with a need for further study of chronic and therapeutic effects in relevant clinical populations.”
Marijuana isn’t known to cause an anxiety disorder to develop in people that otherwise wouldn’t have had one, but it can cause anxiety symptoms in some people. Marijuana is a complicated drug, and it can cause relaxation in some and anxiety symptoms in others. This is especially true for people that take marijuana with high levels of THC, which have been associated with symptoms like anxiety, discomfort, increased heart rate, and psychosis. Someone with an anxiety or panic disorder may see a worsening of symptoms when they take high doses of THC. If you’re treated for anxiety with medical marijuana, it’s likely that you’ll take lower doses of THC than some illicit sources of marijuana can provide.
Marijuana isn’t known to cause severe substance use disorders on the same level as other illicit drugs like marijuana or cocaine. In fact, other medications that are used to treat anxiety disorders like benzodiazepines may lead to issues like chemical dependence more easily. However, marijuana can lead to substance use issues, and while it’s not as addictive as some other drugs, marijuana dependence and addiction is possible.
People that quit using marijuana after a period of long-term use report feeling mental and physical withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, and general discomfort. Marijuana can also cause some uncomfortable side effects while you’re using it. It can cause heart palpitations, sweating, racing thoughts, memory issues, irritability, hallucinations, confusion, and other issues.
Marijuana also impairs driving, which is something that comes with extensive warnings even when it happens in regular legal medications.
Smoking marijuana may also come with some risks though the extent of the health risks of marijuana smoke is still being studied. Though it hasn’t been proven to be as harmful as tobacco smoke, leading to serious issues like cancer, it can cause throat and lung irritation. It’s possible that smoking marijuana could increase your cancer risk to some degree. Vaping, in particular, has been linked to serious lung injuries.
Self-medication is the use of psychoactive drugs to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms without consulting a medical or clinical professional. In many cases, people don’t seek out a drug as a treatment for issues like anxiety, but they find that recreational use helps to mask symptoms. Over time, the use of the drug stops being purely recreational, and you start using it alone, just to help you feel normal.
Self-medication can be dangerous, especially when you’re trying to treat issues like depression or anxiety. Mental health problems can be complex, and adding a psychoactive chemical to the equation without a doctor’s help can make things worse. Even with a doctor’s help, treating mental health with medication can be tricky. It often involves a period of trial and error where you try a medication and keep your doctor updated as to its effectiveness and side effects. If a drug is causing too many side effects or proves ineffective, your doctor may adjust the dose or switch your medication.
Self-medicating means taking a drug and a dose without any guidance. In many cases, especially when taking illicit drugs, self-medication can be unpredictable. If you have an anxiety disorder, using marijuana on your own may do more harm than good. If your anxiety is tied to an underlying issue like schizophrenia or other disorders that can cause psychosis, marijuana may actually worsen these symptoms.
Since anxiety is so common in the United States, there are a variety of treatment options that can help you manage your anxiety issue. Anxiety can be caused by a number of problems that may require different treatment methods. Speaking to a medical or clinical professional may shed some light as to the specific type of anxiety issue you have and the best course for treatment. Psychotherapy and behavioral therapy are good options to help you learn more about your anxiety and develop ways to cope more effectively with it. With the increased availability of telemedicine, there are fewer barriers than ever to speaking with a therapist.
If you speak to a doctor, you may have some pharmacotherapeutic options like antidepressants or benzodiazepines that may be able to help alleviate symptoms. There is no magic pill, and finding the right medication may take some trial and error. Keep in mind that mental health can be complicated, but issues like anxiety can be treated effectively, if you put the work in.
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