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Anxiety

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This article hits close to home. I have an anxiety disorder. I work hard at it, and I’ve been pretty successful coping. But there are still days when I just can’t control it. Sometimes I wake up, and without a conscious thought to it, my nervous system is on fire. My muscles feel permanently constricted. My mind races frantically from one point to the next. What I need most is to relax, but even thinking about trying to relax intensifies my anxiety. I’m not alone—40 million adults in the United States experience an anxiety disorder every year1—and about half of all people use medicinal cannabis to manage anxiety.1,2 Count me in.

It’s normal to worry about things big and small: about work, a presentation, paying the bills, where the world is heading. But when worries interfere with day-to-day functions, anxiety becomes a disorder. Past trauma, specific phobias, or just daily life can trigger panic—the quintessential anxiety disorder is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)3—and what gets triggered is a neurological response centered in fear. For example, people with PTSD have a hyperactive amygdala, an evolutionarily ancient part of our brain that stores fear-related memories and responds to threats with fear, aggression, and defensive behavior.3 The effects aren’t just psychological, though. Anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and gastrointestinal problems.

Treating anxiety disorders is generally a two-part process. The first part is medication, primarily with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for long-term anxiety management and benzodiazepines such as Valium—which can be addictive—for acute attacks. As with any medication, there can be side effects: nausea, drowsiness, headaches, and sexual problems. The second part, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is just as important. CBT is a type of professional counseling that helps people recognize thought patterns and change behaviors that lead to anxiety. Both medication and CBT are equally effective, and their effects combine for the best chance at long-term anxiety management.4

Millions of people are using cannabis as an alternative medication for anxiety disorders, and in several surveys, most people reported exceptional anxiety relief.2,5,6 But there’s also a bit of a paradox, because 10–20% of users consistently report anxiety as a negative side effect of cannabis.2,6

Honestly, at this point in time, we have more questions than answers. We know our ECS plays a role in anxiety. Patients with PTSD have more type I cannabinoid (CB1) receptors in their nervous systems and lower concentrations of natural endocannabinoids that activate those receptors. We also know that anxiety is a major negative side effect of pure THC, but pure CBD can reduce anxiety by decreasing neural activity in the amygdala, similar to benzodiazepines.2 However, when we look at how people respond to the whole cannabis plant, these trends don’t really hold.

We often focus on THC and CBD as the main components of cannabis, but they alone can’t explain the differences between cannabis cultivars. A cannabis plant has over 150 different terpenes; different combinations give each cultivar its unique smell and taste.2 It’ll take a long time before we understand how all these components work in concert—a synergistic action called the “entourage effect”—but meanwhile, scientists have asked the experts: cannabis users!

One thing is clear, not all cultivars of cannabis are equally effective for relieving anxiety. In one survey, 84% of users in Canada reported that medical cannabis helped relieve their anxiety. About 40–50% of people reported anxiety relief using C. indica and hybrid cultivars, compared to 7-10% reporting increased anxiety. The results for C. sativa cultivars were far more mixed; 30% reported increased anxiety, the same percentage of people reporting relief.5

Another study went even deeper and examined the total cannabinoid and terpene content in cannabis cultivars that were reported as best for anxiety (Bubba Kush, Skywalker OG Kush, Kosher Kush) and least effective (Chocolope, CBD Shark, Tangerine Dream). Interestingly, one slightly C. sativa-dominant hybrid (Blueberry Lambsbread) made the list as both most effective and least effective,1 meaning people had vastly different experiences with the same cultivar.

So, how can you find the cultivar of medical cannabis uniquely suited for your anxiety? Try focusing on cultivars that are pure C. indica or C. indica-dominant hybrids and have low CBD. Try a few cultivars at different doses and keep notes on which is most effective for you. 

But what about long-term anxiety management? Well, here’s where it gets a little tricky. If you find that medical cannabis helps with sudden anxiety attacks but doesn’t reduce how often the attacks occur, then there are concerns about dependency, even if cannabis itself isn’t considered addictive. After all, long-term management is the main reason why SSRIs are prescribed first, instead of benzodiazepines. But if you want to avoid pharmaceuticals altogether, you should consider integrating medical cannabis with professional therapy—CBT counseling in particular.

Unfortunately, easy access to medical cannabis appears to be leaving therapy out of the equation for some. In one study, 80% of Californians who used medical cannabis for anxiety or depression were not prescribed cannabis for that reason,1 so they wouldn’t have received professional recommendations for therapy. In another study, only 20% of Canadians using medical cannabis for anxiety disorders had ever received CBT counseling. Some of these people were also using considerable amounts of cannabis—23% used ≥3 grams cannabis per day.5 Another study hinted that stronger doses of cannabis may not provide better symptom relief but could cause more side effects, both positive and negative6—you can read more about that study in the Research Corner on page 14.

Overall, medical cannabis could prove extremely effective for relieving anxiety symptoms. Each person is unique though, so finding the cultivar and dosage that works for your anxiety will require some experimentation. But even with that, conventional medication or cannabis is only half the battle. If you face persistent anxiety attacks, talk to your doctor; professional CBT counseling may be the missing piece for long-term anxiety management.


References:

1. Kosiba, J., Maisto, S., and Ditre, J. “Patient-reported use of medical cannabis for pain, anxiety, and depression symptoms: Systematic review and meta-analysis.” Social Science & Medicine 233 (2019): 181-92. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.06.005.
2. Kamal, B., Kamal, F., and Lantela, D. “Cannabis and the anxiety of fragmentation—a systems approach for finding an anxiolytic cannabis chemotype.” Frontiers in Neuroscience 12 (2018): 730. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00730.
3. Zoellner, L., Rothbaum, B., and Feeny, N. “PTSD not an anxiety disorder? DSM committee proposal turns back the hands of time.” Depression and Anxiety 28, no. 10 (2011): 853-6. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20899.
4. Cuijpers, P., Sijbrandij, M., Koole, S., Andersson, G., Beekman, A., and Reynolds, C. “Adding psychotherapy to antidepressant medication in depression and anxiety disorders: a meta-analysis.” World Psychiatry 13, no. 1 (2014): 56-67. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20089.
5. Turna, J., Simpson, W., Patterson, B., Lucas, P., and Van Ameringen, M. “Cannabis use behaviors and prevalence of anxiety and depressive symptoms in a cohort of Canadian medicinal cannabis users.” Journal of Psychiatric Research 111 (2019): 134-39. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2019.01.024.
6. Stith, S., Vigil, J., Brockelman, F., Keeling, K., and Hall, B. “The association between cannabis product characteristics and symptom relief.” Nature Scientific Reports 9, no. 1 (2019): 2712. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39462-1.

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Turmeric

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Turmeric is a root vegetable commonly used as a spice in various Indian and other cultures’ dishes. Turmeric is in the zingiberaceae family, as is ginger. The turmeric plant is native to the southeastern region of Asia and commonly harvested in places like India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, and Taiwan. It is responsible for curry’s signature orange color, and its vibrant pigment will give essentially any meal an orange hue. 

Turmeric contains a substance called curcumin, and curcumin has been shown through research to offer anti-inflammatory and other therapeutic benefits. The scientific name for the turmeric plant is Curcuma Longa, and likely where the name curcumin comes from. When people are talking about the health benefits of turmeric, they are referencing curcumin so you may hear the two names used interchangeably. Curcumin is part of a group called curcuminoids, with curcumin being the most active and the most beneficial for health. Flavonoids are another substance found in various plants and give these plants their color. Curcumin is a flavonoid and is responsible for providing that bright orange color to turmeric. In addition to providing aesthetic value, flavonoids are also strong antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.

The Journal of Biological Chemistry published a study done by Sanjaya Singh and Bharat B. Aggarwal of the Cytokine Research Laboratory at the world-renowned cancer hospital, M.D. Anderson. The study found that curcumin suppressed NF-κB, a protein complex responsible for controlling inflammatory responses. In other words, turmeric shuts off the body’s inflammatory response. Anti-inflammatories can be beneficial for many different ailments, including chronic pain and digestive disorders. A lot of CBD companies even put curcumin in their products because of its benefits. It is believed to be a synergistic pair with complementary therapeutic properties. The thought is that the two plant medicines are powerful on their own; as a combination, they can deliver even more anti-inflammatory and medicinal benefits. 

Many people simply add turmeric to their dishes as a way to easily incorporate it into their daily routine. It is pretty mild in flavor and can be added to many dishes without changing the overall taste too drastically. Some say that turmeric isn’t strong enough on its own to receive the anti-inflammatory properties that curcumin provides, and therefore recommend a curcumin supplement. Research varies on that, so in the end it is just up to personal preference and your doctor’s approval. Curcumin supplements come most available in capsules. Pregnant women can safely use turmeric as an addition to their food, but should avoid taking high-dosage supplements. Those who are interested in supplementing with curcumin products should talk with their doctor first. 

M.D. Anderson Cancer Center did another study in 2007 exploring curcumin for cancer treatment. The study found that curcumin inhibits ovarian cancer growth and angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels). It does this by targeting and manipulating the NF-κB pathway, the same protein complex responsible for controlling inflammatory response. According to a report published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The nuclear factor NF-κB pathway has long been considered a prototypical proinflammatory signaling pathway, largely based on the role of NF-κB in the expression of proinflammatory genes including cytokines, chemokines, and adhesion molecules.”  

The trend with curcumin seems to be it’s ability to control inflammatory responses in the body. It does this by multiple pathways, but a commonly researched one is the NF-κB protein complex. Because this pathway is able to be manipulated by curcumin to encourage anti-inflammatory expressions, its potential for successfully treating various ailments is there.

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Psilocybin + Magic Mushrooms

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When many think of plant medicine, specifically those plants with psychoactive effects, they think of “magic mushrooms,” or fungi containing psilocybin and psilocin that can cause hallucinations depending on the dosage consumed. In many states, there are active efforts to decriminalize these otherwise scheduled substances, lowering penalties for their use and possession. But what value do psilocybin-containing mushrooms offer? New research suggests a range of therapeutic and psychological value ranging from the treatment of substance abuse to anxiety and depression management.  

What are Magic Mushrooms?

Magic Mushroom use dates back to 10,000 BCE and references continue throughout the era. Their modern popularity began when the term “magic mushroom” was coined by two etnomycologists who learned of a Harvard study on local doctors in Mexico using these substances, noting the substance’s ability to affect the nervous system. These findings were eventually published in Life magazine in 1957, and the term became the universal reference for psychoactive fungi and truffles, specifically those containing high concentrations of psilocybin and psilocin.

Psilocybin & Psilocin: The “Magic” in Magic Mushrooms

Psilocybin and psilocin are part of a family of psychedelic compounds found in magic mushrooms. Psilocin is pharmacologically active, and psilocybin is converted into psilocin when consumed or activated. Similar in structure to serotonin, there are more than 50 species of mushrooms and a variety of truffles that produce both the precursor, psilocybin, and the psychoactive compound, psilocin. Unlike LSD, magic mushrooms do not affect dopamine receptors, solely targeting serotonin sites

How are Magic Mushrooms used?

Magic mushrooms are often used for recreational, therapeutic and medicinal reasons. “Effects range from mild feelings of relaxation, giddiness, euphoria, visual enhancement (seeing colors brighter), visual disturbances (moving surfaces, waves), to delusions, altered perception of real events, images and faces, or real hallucinations.” Recreationally, this is often known as “tripping.” As an alternative health option, these fungi are being used for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and trauma, as well as psychological disorders such as substance abuse disorders, and science is beginning to back the potential for these applications.

Research on Mushrooms

Evaluations of currently available scientific studies suggest a growing number of therapeutic benefits and treatment options. “In the past few years, a growing number of studies using human volunteers have begun to explore the possible therapeutic benefits of drugs such as psilocybin…looking at psilocybin and other hallucinogens to treat a number of otherwise intractable psychiatric disorders, including chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug or alcohol dependency.”

Magic mushrooms have been respected as a “safe & natural healing sacrament for millennia throughout Mexico, Central America and the world,” and are known to be beneficial for depression, recidivism (the tendency to repeat past transgressions), and encourages openness, creativity, as well as personal and spiritual growth. UCLA and NYC have done studies on the applications of magic mushrooms in the treatment of end-of-life anxiety and other studies have backed up the use of psilocybin and psilocin in the treatment of substance use disorders, depression (especially in cases of terminal conditions like cancer as well as treatment-resistant depression), and reducing depression and anxiety overall.

Best way for people to consume?

When it comes to the consumption of mushrooms, advice on dosage is about as specific as it was with cannabis under prohibition. Consumers must purchase on the black market and are subject to whatever may be available. 

“Recreational doses range from 1–5 grams of dry mushrooms depending on the species and individual strength of the specimens… After ingestion, the psilocybin is enzymatically converted to psilocin. Absorbed from the gastro-intestinal tract, hallucinogenic effects usually occur within 30 minutes of ingestion with a duration of effect of 4–6 hours.” 

My recommendation as someone who has used magic mushrooms both for recreational and therapeutic purposes, is to grind the mushrooms into a fine powder and either encapsulate them in small increments and/or combine with lemon juice. Capsules will allow you to titrate your dosage as needed with a recognizable increment, while lemon juice will expedite onset time.  

The Legality of Magic Mushrooms

In the United States, psilocybin is a Schedule I controlled substance, with no accepted medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. In contrast, the Drug Policy Alliance states that “Physically, psilocybin mushrooms are considered to be one of the least toxic drugs known.” With that being said, local efforts such as Decriminalize Nature – Oakland and Decriminalize Denver have pushed for and successfully passed initiatives and legislation to reduce penalties and make enforcement a low priority, as was done in the early days of cannabis activism. This has spurred multiple local and international efforts to “Decriminalize Nature,” efforts that we learn more about in this month’s feature.

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Ginkgo Biloba

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Ginkgo biloba is an ancient tree; its roots originate in China. The ginkgo biloba tree is also sometimes known as the maidenhair tree or the Japanese silver apricot, and it produces a foul-smelling fruit commonly harvested for its seeds known as “ginkgo nuts”. Ginkgo nuts are popularly used in Asian cuisine. 

The ginkgo biloba tree’s fan-shaped leaves are used to make ginkgo biloba extract, a supplement traditionally used in Chinese medicine, but has since garnered the attention of cultures worldwide. The supplement comes in liquid extracts, capsules, and tablets. The leaves can also be dried to make tea. The type of ginkgo biloba extract supplement someone takes is all a matter of personal preference, and depends on the user’s already existing regimen. If you do not already drink tea, a ginkgo biloba tea may not implement easily into your lifestyle, thus a greater chance for inconsistency or erratic results. But if you take vitamins or other supplements regularly, after a doctor’s approval you can easily incorporate an additional capsule or tablet into your daily routine. 

The 16th-century Compendium of Materia Medica or Ben Cao Gang Mu is revered as the most comprehensive text ever written in the history of traditional Chinese medicine. This text reveals that ginkgo biloba seeds were used as a topical extract for antimicrobial purposes on the skin. Traditional Chinese Medicine also uses the leaves for tea and attributes it to soothing coughs and activating blood circulation, as well as other benefits like respiratory and digestive ailments. 

A common use for ginkgo biloba is to preserve memory and prevent cognitive decline. Dr. Hiroko Dodge of Oregon State University at Corvallis and his research team followed 118 people for three years aged 85 years and older, in good health, and showing no signs of dementia or memory loss at the beginning of the study. Half took ginkgo biloba and half took a placebo over three years. The patients taking it regularly had a 70% lower risk of developing dementia. According to the study, the other variables included considered “basic demographic variables including age, sex, years of education, and living arrangement (living alone vs living with someone).” 

The National Center for Biotechnology and Information published a study exploring ginkgo as a potential remedy for anxiety and, “The authors reported a significant improvement in psychopathological symptoms. Response rates were 44% in the high-dose group, 31% in the low-dose group, and 22% with placebo. Additionally, the percentages of clinically significant responses were 81%, 67%, and 38% for the high-dose, the low-dose, and the placebo groups, respectively.”2

A 2008 study reinforced the idea behind Traditional Chinese Medicine that ginkgo biloba improves blood circulation. The study shows ginkgo biloba extract to improve coronary artery circulation in patients with coronary artery disease. The study notes, “GBE (ginkgo biloba extract) treatment demonstrated a significant improvement in maximal diastolic peak velocity (MDPV), maximal systolic peak velocity (MSPV) and diastolic time velocity integral (DTVI) compared with controls.”3 In other words, ginkgo biloba extract is a great contender as a treatment to improve blood flow. 

Like cannabis and other medicinal plants, ginkgo has terpenes and flavonoids. Both of these compounds have therapeutic properties, and can provide anti-inflammatory benefits as well as being packed with antioxidants. Anti-inflammatory effects can serve many different ailments, especially relieving pain of various kinds. Antioxidants are thought to protect our bodies from free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can cause harm to the body. Terpenes are also responsible for giving plants their unique and flavorful smell. Flavonoids are the compounds that give plants their vibrant and diverse colors, and are the largest group of phytonutrients. There are approximately 6,00 different types of flavonoids. 

A few years back, the National Toxicology Program released a detailed report on ginkgo biloba extract. It dissects the toxicity and carcinogenic properties of ginkgo biloba using rodent test subjects. The report made its rounds as proof that ginkgo biloba causes cancer, because the rodents developed cancer at high-rates over two year periods. Per the American Botanical Council, “Adjusted for bodyweight, dosage levels given to the animals were up to 55 to 108 times higher than levels of ginkgo normally ingested by human beings taking ginkgo supplements.” Many people have been using this report to warn against the supplement, but Bill J. Gurley, Ph.D., a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Arkansas School for Medical Sciences, Little Rock said, “Almost anything will create cancer in rats and mice when it’s fed to them at high doses for two years.” The American Botanical Council also claims the ginkgo biloba extract used in the rodent experiment was of lesser quality, and not meeting European standards. 

Though this seemingly negative research on ginkgo can be explained, it is still important to discuss any kind of supplement addition with your doctor, especially if you are on other supplements or pharmaceutical prescriptions.

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