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The market for products containing cannabidiol, or CBD, has exploded in recent years. Surveys show 14%-33% of U.S. adults have used CBD at some point. People take it for all kinds of health issues, including pain and insomnia, without much hard science to show whether it works.

Scientists are studying it as a potential treatment for diseases including Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, and mental health conditions including schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. There’s evidence that CBD can offer some help to people who have anxiety or depression. But very little research has been done, and there’s plenty of reason to proceed with caution. 

What Is CBD?

Cannabidiol is a chemical compound found in the Cannabis sativa plant, a species that includes both hemp and marijuana. It’s different from the other main compound in cannabis, THC, in the way that it binds to certain receptors in your brain. It doesn’t make you feel “high.” 

In the U.S., it can be legally manufactured from the hemp plant, and it is sold in many different forms. You can take it by mouth as an oil, a capsule, or a spray, or spread it on your skin as a lotion or oil. It’s added to food, drinks, pet products, and personal items like cosmetics, and it’s even infused into fabric. Depending on your state laws, you can buy it online, in specialty stores, or in your neighborhood grocery or drugstore.

What’s the Evidence for CBD in Anxiety and Depression Treatment?

You may have heard from a friend or read online about people who swear CBD helped with their mental health issues. But there have been very few scientific studies comparing the effects of CBD to the effects of another medicine or a fake medicine called a placebo.

Anxiety. More than a dozen studies have been done on lab animals over the past 3 decades that showed that depending on the dose, CBD could reduce behavior similar to anxiety in people. A handful of studies have been done with people that had similar results.

  • Two studies from 1974 and 1982 found that CBD lowered anxiety caused by taking THC.
  • A 1993 study found less anxiety in people who took CBD and then performed a public speaking test.
  • People in a small study published in 2003 reported feeling less anxious after taking CBD than those who took a placebo. 
  • Two studies published in 2011 found CBD reduced symptoms in people diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. 
  • A study published in 2019 showed CBD worked better than a placebo for teenagers with social anxiety. 
  • Young people whose regular anxiety medicine wasn’t working well showed improvement after adding CBD in a study published in 2022. 
  • Results from the first phase of an ongoing trial using CBD and other cannabis compounds published in 2022 found the medication could ease symptoms over 4 weeks. 

The Drug Enforcement Administration changed its rules about CBD in 2015, making it easier to use it for research. More than a dozen studies are going on now or are being set up to test the effect of CBD on anxiety. Some involve people diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Others are looking at anxiety in people with cancer or other diseases. 

Depression. Anxiety and depression are often treated using the same drugs, showing they may be influenced by the same brain processes. So it makes sense that if CBD works for anxiety, it might also work for depression. But there have been even fewer studies focusing on depression specifically. Almost 2 dozen animal studies found CBD can have an antidepressant effect. Also:

  • A study of people with cancer and chronic pain published in 2012 found an improvement in symptoms of depression. The drug tested contained CBD and THC. 
  • Two studies published in 2018 found CBD reversed depression symptoms brought on by marijuana use.
  • In a survey of more than 2,000 people, more than 1 in 6 reported using CBD to manage depression. Almost two-thirds of them said it worked very well or moderately well. 
  • The study published in 2022 on young people that showed a benefit for anxiety symptoms also found significant improvement in depression symptoms.

In addition to one study planning to test CBD for treating anxiety and depression in people with bipolar disorder, another study on CBD for chronic pain is measuring whether it also improves depression symptoms. 

Doctors aren’t exactly sure how CBD might improve anxiety and depression symptoms. It acts on more than 65 receptors in your brain, some of which affect your levels of serotonin. That’s a brain chemical that helps control your mood. Several drugs already used to treat anxiety and depression focus on boosting your levels of serotonin. But other receptors and brain pathways may also be involved. 

Is CBD Safe for Treating Anxiety and Depression?

Right now, CBD is only approved to treat certain seizure disorders. A report by the World Health Organization found it to be generally safe and not likely to be abused. 

But other than the anti-seizure medications, CBD products aren’t regulated by the FDA. That means the government can’t guarantee whether any given CBD product is safe, or even if it actually contains what the manufacturer says it does. 

Companies aren’t allowed to market them as medicines, dietary supplements, or food additives, although they do.

Here are some things to consider before you try CBD for anxiety or depression: 

  • The amount of CBD in the product could be more or less than what the label says.
  • The product might have ingredients that aren’t listed, including the intoxicating ingredient in marijuana, THC. 
  • Without government oversight of the manufacturing process, the product could be contaminated. 
  • Doctors don’t know how much of the CBD you eat, inhale, or rub on your skin actually gets into your system. 
  • Studies have tested CBD in different doses, but scientists don’t yet know how much you’d need to take for it to help you, or how often or for how long you’d need to be treated. 

The FDA is working with lawmakers to come up with a system to evaluate and approve CBD products. 

What Are the Possible Side Effects of CBD?

Clinical studies on CBD in people and animals have identified several possible side effects. They include:

  • Sleepiness
  • Decreased appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Crankiness and other mood changes
  • Liver damage
  • Male infertility

CBD can interact with certain other drugs, or change the way those drugs work in your body, which can lead to dangerous side effects. They include certain antibiotics, antidepressants, cholesterol medicines, and blood thinners. 

Should You Try CBD for Anxiety and Depression?

That’s very much a question to discuss with your doctor. You shouldn’t stop taking any medication you’ve been prescribed without talking with them first. You may need to slowly reduce your dose of certain anxiety and depression medications to avoid side effects. 

If you do use CBD, or marijuana, to manage depression or anxiety, it’s important to be honest with your doctor about it. A recent survey found that many people take CBD but don’t tell their doctors. That makes it hard to know whether your medical treatment or therapy is helping. And taking CBD with other prescription medicines can change the way they work. 

Show Sources

Photo Credit: Valentinrussanov / Getty Images


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