Can CBD or cannabis help with OCD?

December 10, 2020

“OCD” is a term that you will often hear misused or used flippantly; people use the term to describe super clean or organised people. But for those living with the condition, symptoms are far more severe and hindering. Claiming to have OCD tendencies, or accusing someone else of OCD behaviour undermines what can in fact be a serious mental health condition.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a disabling illness and a common health condition. People with OCD have obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours that can be unsettling and considerably interfere with everyday life. It affects around three-quarters of a million people in the UK – the severity, of course, varies. OCD can come in many forms but people living with OCD share the common experience of obsessions or unrelenting, unmanageable thoughts and impulses. You will likely know that it is nonsensical to carry out a compulsion but it will still feel too daunting not to. Compulsions can range from physical actions such as washing your hands obsessively, to mental rituals like counting to a certain number. 

There are some therapeutic and pharmaceutical treatment options for OCD but these remedies are far from full-proof, many patients reporting that they are unable to substantially manage the condition. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is actually a subcategory of anxiety, which is why researchers are studying the effects CBD may have on those with OCD. There is mounting research and evidence that is revealing the role of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in managing symptoms of OCD such as anxiety, fear, and repetitive behaviours. As a result, scientists studying OCD have recently started paying attention to cannabinoids as a potential treatment for the management and easement of OCD symptoms.

Cannabis for OCD – the evidence

A new study published in October this year in the Journal of Affective Disorders signalled towards cannabis as a prospective treatment for OCD. The published research titled ‘Acute Effects of Cannabis on Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder’ found that cannabis use, and especially cannabis with higher levels of CBD, was able to swiftly, but only temporarily, reduce symptoms of OCD such as anxiety, compulsions, and intrusive thoughts. In the 87 individuals self-identifying with OCD who partook in the study, inhaled cannabis reduced the severity of compulsions by 60%, intrusions by 49% and 52% in anxiety. Participants in the study tracked changes in their symptoms using the data app Strainprint®, making notes regarding the severity of their intrusions, compulsions, and/or anxiety immediately before and after 1,810 cannabis use sessions spanning a period of 31 months. 

Researches calculated that those who used high CBD products reported a lessening of their compulsion symptoms, compared to those using higher THC options. The study’s conclusion warned that tolerance to the effects on intrusions may develop over time, meaning that the use of cannabis as a long-term solution for those with OCD is still unclear. 

A 2019 review published in ‘Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research’ has showcased evidence that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a role in anxiety, fear, and repetitive behaviours. As OCD affects parts of the brain that are associated with these habits, it is likely that the endocannabinoid system could be a good target for new medications for OCD such as CBD due to the ECS’s ability to modulate behavioural patterns: “Although preliminary, the available clinical data indicate that cannabinoids influence OCD-relevant processes, impacting anxiety symptoms, enhancing fear extinction, and reducing certain repetitive behaviours. CBD also has a potential role in treatment given its favourable side effect profile, lack of psychotogenic/anxiogenic properties, and ability to enhance fear extinction in humans and to reduce compulsive-like behaviour in mice.”

Although the limited studies and collection of data appear promising, another recent experiment undertaken by Dr Reilly Kayser, the leading author on the above review in ‘Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research’, has given inconclusive results. The human laboratory study conducted by Kayser and published in May this year was the first placebo-controlled investigation of cannabis in adults with OCD. The assessment was conducted on twelve participants and concluded that “smoked cannabis, whether containing primarily THC or CBD, has little acute impact on OCD symptoms and yields smaller reductions in anxiety compared to placebo.”

Cannabis as a solution to alleviate symptoms of OCD is a new proposition and not enough studies have yet been overseen to give decisive answers. Whilst there have been propitious results, the most recent study for the Journal of Affective Disorders, only looked at the effects of cannabis in the short-term and data was collected using self-reported information from participants which can be unreliable and biased. 

It is important to note that smoking cannabis, especially with high levels of THC, does have the capability to exacerbate anxiety or fears. Until there is more expert confirmation to use cannabis as a treatment for OCD, it is wise to stick to verified CBD, whose properties have been demonstrated to help with anxiety. 

If you have been diagnosed with OCD or know someone who has, it’s worth keeping tabs on this alternative therapy, which may provide a breakthrough over the next few years as larger studies and tests are administered.

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