Treating Anxiety with Plant-Based Therapy

Anxiety is the world’s largest mental health issue. While this is concerning on many levels, there is some positive news—anxiety disorders are treatable.

An estimated 275 million people suffer from anxiety disorders worldwide with a 25% increase in cases following the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic—adding another 68 million people to the list globally, Australia included.

With one in four Australians set to suffer from anxiety in their lifetime, anxiety weighs heavily on our nation. Measured across 16 to 85 years, 4.96 million Australians suffer from an anxiety disorder today.

Understanding Anxiety
Feeling anxious is a normal brain and body function reacting to stress and responding to danger, but an anxiety disorder is more than this. It’s a persistent feeling of anxiousness and fear that is constant, overwhelming and excessive—often about everyday situations.

The major types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Social phobia or social anxiety disorder (SAD)

Other anxiety disorders include separation anxiety and specific phobias. All these fall under the umbrella of anxiety disorders and it’s not unusual for people to have more than one anxiety disorder.

Anxiety Signs and Symptoms
Some common signs and symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless and/or tense
  • Having a sense of imminent doom, danger and/or panic
  • Physical signs include increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, and/or trembling
  • Feeling weak and/or tired
  • Trouble concentrating and/or having difficulty controlling worry
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) problems
  • Wanting to avoid things that trigger anxiety

When to Seek Help for Anxiety
When anxiety symptoms are prolonged, immobilising, interfere with relationships and/or affect sleep and concentration you should seek medical advice. Anxiety that obstructs enjoyment or impedes daily tasks requires medical guidance.

Diagnosing Anxiety
To correctly diagnose anxiety a medical practitioner will start with a physical assessment to rule out an underlying physical condition and then assess symptoms with common self-assessment anxiety diagnostic tests. These include:

  • Zung Self-Rating Anxiety Scale
  • Hamilton Anxiety Scale (HAM-A)
  • Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI)
  • Social Phobia Inventory (SPIN)
  • Penn State Worry Questionnaire
  • Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale (YBOCS)

Regulating Anxiety & the Endocannabinoid System’s Role
Our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a key role in regulating bodily functions and maintaining internal balance (homeostasis). While our body naturally produces endocannabinoids, there can be deficiency. The cannabis plant produces an equivalent—phytocannabinoids—which are interpreted as endocannabinoids by our body. Working with receptors and enzymes, the ECS modulates mood, sleep, reproduction, memory, appetite and inflammation.

Traditional Treatments for Anxiety
Traditional treatment for anxiety includes anti-anxiety medication such as sedatives, beta-blockers or benzodiazepines, and in some instances, anti-depressants. Psychotherapy techniques like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is also effective in treating anxiety.

Plant-based Therapies for Anxiety
Endocannabinoid deficiency is thought to be an underlying cause of many ailments. Researchers believe that phytocannabinoids from medical cannabis can help regulate the body and treat a range of conditions including anxiety.

Research and Clinical Trials
Research studies have indicated how medical cannabis can help treat anxiety.

A 2018 Australian study of 1,748 participants showed more than half (50.7%) of respondents using medical cannabis for anxiety reported high levels of clinical effectiveness. A Canadian study in 2019 with 2,032 respondents showed the vast majority of respondents’ perceived anxiety symptoms improved with medical cannabis.

In an Israeli research study on PTSD, there were improvements in respondents’ global symptom severity, frequency of nightmares, sleep quality and PTSD hyperarousal symptoms. A 2020 Case Report found that medical cannabis helps improve OCD with increasing evidence of the endocannabinoid system’s involvement with the pathophysiology of OCD.

In another case study of 72 adults, results showed that cannabidiol (CBD) may be beneficial for anxiety-related disorders (in nearly 80% of respondents). A Brazilian study revealed CBD reduced anxiety among a group of 57 males.

In Australia, clinical trials actively recruiting (at the time of publishing), furthering research into medical cannabis benefits for anxiety, include The University of Sydney’s Lambert Initiative for Cannaboid Therapeutics, Project Twenty21 Australia, and CCAMDYA.

While research is in its early days, medical cannabis is proving to be a viable therapeutic treatment for a range of health conditions, including anxiety, helping to provide relief for patients for improved quality of life.