CBD may help teens and young adults with anxiety when other treatment fails, study finds

New research suggests that teens and young adults with treatment-resistant anxiety could find relief using cannabidiol (CBD).

Neuroscience News reports that a 31-subject pilot study by the Australian mental health nonprofit Orygen found that after using CBD for 12 weeks, the group of 12-25 year olds with diagnosed anxiety disorders reported average improvements of 42.6 percent. Clinicians observing the subjects rated improvements in anxiety as slightly more dramatic, an average of 50.7 percent.

The findings of the pilot study are set for publication in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, a a peer-reviewed medical journal. Researchers noted that the next step will be studying a larger group in a randomized controlled trial.

Subjects’ self-reported anxiety was assessed through a questionnaire about symptoms including panic attacks, situational anxieties, worries and flashbacks.

“The young people had fewer panic attacks and could do things which they were previously unable to do like leave the house, go to school, participate in social situations, eat at restaurants, take public transport or attend appointments by themselves,” said the study’s leader, Professor Paul Amminger. “That’s an amazing change in the group which has had treatment-resistant, long-standing severe to very severe anxiety.”

“The young people had fewer panic attacks and could do things which they were previously unable to do like leave the house, go to school, participate in social situations, eat at restaurants, take public transport or attend appointments by themselves,”

— Paul Amminger, Lead Researcher in The Cannabidiol Youth Anxiety Pilot Study

All 31 participants’ anxiety had failed to show significant improvement following at least five cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions.

“The problem with current frontline treatments for anxiety—CBT and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant drugs—is that they only work in about half of the people who try them,” Amminger said. “Anxiety disorders are very common so that leaves a large number of young people untreated, struggling with symptoms and developing secondary conditions, for instance depression and substance use disorders.”

Orygen’s executive director Patrick McGorry, a professor who was also involved with the study, noted recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing that anxiety affected 31.5 percent of people aged 16–24. A U.S. study found that 48 percent of 18-25 year olds struggled with either anxiety or depression in mid 2021.

“We’re seeing more and more young people experiencing anxiety — it’s the fasting growing form of mental ill-health in young people and we urgently need innovation in treatment,” McGorry said. “Cannabidiol is a promising treatment option which appears safe and effective. We need further research to confirm this and explore its value.”

“Cannabidiol is a promising treatment option which appears safe and effective. We need further research to confirm this and explore its value.”

— Patrick McGorry, Executive Director, Orygen

The participants’ starting dose was one 200 milligram capsule of CBD per day, increased to 400 mg after one week. Those who did not show significant improvement in anxiety symptoms had their dosage incrementally increased to as much as 800 mg per day. All participants were offered biweekly CBT sessions for the duration of the study.

“Our pilot study found that cannabidiol not only helped to reduce anxiety symptoms but it was also very well tolerated—the most common side-effects were mild sedation and mild fatigue but that was at the time when doses were increased and usually went away after a couple of days,” Amminger said. “We did not see side-effects like suicidal thoughts, irritability or sleep problems, which are not uncommon in people taking SSRIs.”

Amminger acknowledged that although the findings are promising, more research is needed.

“An open-label pilot study is limited by its design,” he said. “To see a treatment effect in the treatment-resistant group is encouraging, but it could still be a placebo effect. The next step is a randomized controlled trial, which is the gold standard to test a new intervention. Such a trial needs to be done in a much larger group—around 200 to 250 young people—to enable us to say with some certainty that there is, or is not, real treatment benefits and effects.”

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