You have likely heard the term “OCD tendencies” used casually to describe uptight behavior traits. The offhand use of this word makes it seem like a mild condition, but the reality is that it can be completely debilitating and sufferers have long-been trying to find a treatment option that’s both safe and effective over an extended period of time.
In the United States alone, as many as one in forty adults are affected by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It can be mild for some people but for others, it can have a crippling impact in their everyday activities. Although research is growing, what we really know about this disorder remains minimal.
Mounting evidence suggests the Endocannabinoid System plays a substantial role in reducing OCD symptoms such as anxiety, fear, and repetitive behaviors; leading scientists and patients to look at cannabis as potential treatment option for this disorder.
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The Endocannabinoid System
Before I go any further, let’s quickly discuss the Endocannabinoid System – what it is and why it’s responsible for managing such a varied range of conditions. The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is network of receptors that can found throughout the bodies of all animals including vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish) and invertebrates (sea urchins, leeches, mussels, nematodes, and others).
We naturally create cannabinoids within our bodies – called endocannabinoids – which bond to these receptors to regulate different processes in our bodies and maintain internal balance and harmony. So far, researchers have been able to identify two separate endocannabinoids: 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) and anandamide (AEA), as well as two main receptors: CB1 and CB2. 2-AG is a full agonist of both the CB1 and CB2 receptors but it has a more direct association with the CB2 receptor.
For this reason, 2-AG is thought to have a substantial influence over the immune system. Anandamide – or AEA – also referred to as the “bliss molecule”, is largely responsible for maintaining a state of homeostasis. AEA can help manage things such as appetite, sleep wake cycles, pain response, and the list goes on. Our bodies continuously cycle through anandamide.
AEA breaks down very easily, so it doesn’t stay in the body for long. However, our bodies create it on-demand to maintain homeostasis. There is a condition referred to as ‘cannabinoid deficiency’, characterized by a body’s inability to produce endocannabinoids. Some experts theorize that many illnesses we suffer from, stem from this shortage of endocannabinoids.
What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
Now, let’s get into some details on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD was once ranked in the top 10 most disabling illnesses by lost income and decreased quality of life and it affects 1 in 40 adults in the United States. Approximately 2.3% of the population has OCD, which is about 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children in the U.S. The prevalence of OCD in a 12-month period is higher in females (1.8%) than males (0.5%). One study in 1992 found that nearly two-thirds of people with OCD had major symptoms before the age of 25. In families with a history of OCD, there’s a 25% chance that another immediate family member will develop symptoms.
According to the DSM-5, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is defined as, “Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive, unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress. The thoughts, impulses, or images are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems.”
This usually manifests in anxiety about things that may go wrong, thinking things have already gone wrong when they haven’t, plus the urges and compulsions such as repeatedly washing hands, checking locks, or cleaning surfaces. Those with OCD typically have higher levels of anxiety and depression, which is to be expected and can range in severity.
Living with OCD presents numerous challenges, and to add to it all, most of the existing treatment options (a combination of SSRIs, Anxiolytics, and Antidepressants) are often unable to completely manage the symptoms. A recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders is pointing towards cannabis as a potential treatment for OCD.
The Study: Cannabis and OCD
Researchers from Washington State University found that “acute cannabis use (inhaled), particularly cannabis with higher levels of CBD, was able to quickly reduce symptoms of OCD such as anxiety, compulsions, and intrusive thoughts.” Case studies on cannabis, as well as synthetic forms of THC (one of the active chemicals in cannabis) have also found some evidence for symptom reduction.
At first this was believed to be a temporary fix, but over time symptoms continued to diminish, especially the intrusive thoughts. Until now, there have been no official studies on the effectiveness of cannabis on OCD, but research has previously found that those with OCD have a higher likelihood of self-medicating with cannabis anyway.
Many private studies, and loads of anecdotal evidence, all point to cannabis as a safe and very effective method for reducing OCD symptoms. This new study was conducted on humans who were voluntarily using inhaled cannabis products. Several animal studies have found that CBD is able to reduce compulsive behaviors in rodents.
Intrigued by the results, researchers on this study were compelled to dive deeper into the connection between cannabis and OCD in humans. Using an app called Strainprint, they were able to survey Canadian cannabis users who self-reported their use of INHALED cannabis products to manage OCD.
A total of 87 individuals evaluated their symptoms prior to cannabis, as well as after, and answered a series of questions – “How intrusive are your thoughts?” or “How bad is your compulsive behavior” – on a scale of 1 to 10. Type of product used and dose was also tracked.
The results: cannabis use was definitively linked to a reduction in OCD symptoms. Ninety-five percent of all respondents reported a reduction in compulsions, while just under ninety percent (89.6) claimed that cannabis minimized intrusive thoughts. As far as anxiety management, ninety-four percent of participants said it helped.
A very small number, 2-3 percent of participants, reported a worsening in symptoms, mainly anxiety. This could be due to the high levels of THC in certain flower strains and products. Ultimately, even these participants found that cannabis helped with their overall mental state. Accounting for all this in their final analysis, researchers found that participants who used products with higher levels of CBD reported more significant reductions in OCD symptoms.
Overtime, cannabis had a less potent effect on these symptoms, indicating that a tolerance can develop. This is the case for recreational users as well, in which case the dosage and product can be adjusted, or the user can take a short tolerance break.
To summarize, both scientific and anecdotal evidence proves that cannabis is effective for reducing symptoms of OCD, despite some limitations. It’s important to note that this study did not have a placebo control group, but regardless, just tracking the patients’ behavior was convincing enough on its own. This research gives hope to sufferers that the potential for natural OCD management exists, in the form of a plant that, thankfully, most Americans already have access to.
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