Is Cannabis Safer than Benzodiazepines as an Anti-Anxiety Drug?

Published : 04/5/2019 11:04:18
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Is Cannabis Safer than Benzodiazepines as an Anti-Anxiety Drug?

As it turns out, going green may not be only beneficial to your kitchen anymore.

If you happen to be in, or past, your 30’s, you are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety. You’re also statistically more likely to know someone who has committed suicide, or suffered from an overdose. Or at a higher likelihood to suffer from some sort of an addiction yourself. Golly- who’s ready for adulthood? These seemingly unrelated facts aren’t exactly encouraging. However, you have probably already discussed possibly anxiety treatment options with your doctor. Or maybe have already tackled an addiction. If you happen to be one of the millions of Americans that have, then you’re well acquainted with what exactly a benzo is.

One of the gold standard treatments for adult onset anxiety is to prescribe benzodiazepines. While not as popular as they were in the late 90’s and early 00’s, Xanax, Ativan, Valium, Klonopin, and a dozen others are still found in medicine cabinets across the US. The “cure” for anxiety has changed dramatically throughout the ages that it has been medically recognized as a legitimate disease. In the Victorian era, they prescribed masturbation to ease fears and calm worries. Shortly after that, large doses of liquid opium hoped to soothe the problems that self-stimulation couldn’t. By the time the 1950’s rolled around, we continued what had been started a decade before, and heavily sedated anxiety and it’s sufferers - using intense medications like the notorious Quaalude to keep our anxieties in check.

During a brief period in the early 60’s, researchers began to examine the potential beneficial effects of using “natural remedies” such as cannabis and DMT. Which showed some encouraging results, however the studies were few and far between and all but defunded. Once again, society looked towards the heavily sedative effects of antidepressants and a new fangled twist on a muscle relaxer - benzodiazepines. By the end of the 70’s, benzodiazepines where the most commonly prescribed medicines on a global scale.

Recently, some serious concerns regarding the safety of the long-term use of these medications have surfaced. There has also been a large amount of controversy about whether or not these medications should be prescribed to the elderly, or to pregnant woman, because of their litany of devastating side effects. Which has brought our newest generation of anxiety sufferers asking for a few decent alternatives.

Who Gets Anxiety

Short answer? Everybody. Pretty much everyone is a potential candidate for anxiety. In fact, successfully identifying the emotional or physiological trigger for anxieties can be one of the most complicated types of emotional diagnosis that a person can go through. While anxiety disorders have a unique set of characteristics that set it apart from many other types of emotional disturbances, the term itself still acts as a pretty large umbrella. A number of different internal and external factors can serve as triggers for anxiety symptoms. Environmental factors, genetics, brain chemistry, previous physical or emotional traumas, and even the use of other medications or recreational substances can serve to set off anxiety.

Even what we would consider everyday, normal stressors can contribute to symptoms of anxiety. Especially if the stress is experienced at high levels over the course of weeks or months. So pretty much everyone that has ever experienced puberty, has a job, or enjoys caffeine or cocktails is at a pretty high risk of developing anxiety. Sound like someone you know? Yea, us too.

Why Do Benzodiazepines Work

Benzodiazepines work by increasing the efficiency of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is a neurotransmitter that decreases the excitability of neurons. In standard English, Benzodiazepines work by upping the effects of some brain juice that is in cells to relax a little bit and stop talking so much. Neurons, specifically those in the brain communicate to one another via gaps between them. The end of one neuron sends out chemicals which then bind to the beginning of the next neuron. In this way, each neuron is then able to communicate to the one. Carrying out regulatory tasks in a stepwise communicative fashion.

Both the end and the beginning of neurons have different “gates” that allow specific types of neurotransmitters through. Neurotransmitters are the brain juice chemicals that relay these specific functionary messages. These gates open and close as necessary, only allowing in the chemicals needed to convey specific messages. So there are certain brain juices that work like bouncers, choosing when, how often, and for whom, the gates get opened. Both GABA and benzo’s act as these gatekeepers. Certain neurotransmitters are dedicated motor mouths, firing around messages at a crazy rate. Others are pretty relaxed and calm- not so “talkative”. The more relaxed and calm neurotransmitters you have, the harder it is to send multiple messages. The more motor mouths you have, the more “stimulated” your neurons become, making it that much easier to send a ton of messages.

Benzodiazepines in particular allow in a huge influx of these relaxed and calm neurotransmitters, making it more difficult for messages get through. If you’ve ever taken a Benzodiazepine you can probably attest to this reality, as generally benzos have a tendency to make people feel relaxed, sleepy, lethargic, and largely sedate.

What is Worrying about Benzodiazepines

So that sounds pretty great, right? I mean, who wouldn’t want a bunch of relaxed brain juices to saturate their consciousness? And there in lines a massive problem with the long-term use of benzodiazepines. The likelihood of addiction and serious withdrawal complications are incredibly high. Not only that, but they are so incredibly effective at relaxing the mind, they can cause adverse side effects like dizziness, drowsiness, inhibited coordination, decreased alertness and inability to concentrate. For pretty much the same reason it’s dangerous to be drunk all the time, it’s equally dangerous to use benzodiazepines all the time.

In the worst case scenario of misuse, benzos can cause a dangerous decrease in breathing, coma, or even death- and the worst case scenario isn’t as rare as you’d hope. In fact, hospital visits that involve benzodiazepine complication increase the risk of a serious and adverse health outcome by 66%. There has also been recent evidence that long term benzodiazepine use is also associated with the development of dementia later in life, as well as an increased likelihood of suicidal behavior, which means a short acting drug, prescribed for short term aggravation of a mental disturbance, could have profound and lasting negative effects on an individual's entire life.

Abuse potential of benzodiazepines is readily recognized by the DEA, however they are still scheduled as a class IV (relatively low abuse potential and acceptable medical application) drug. Keeping benzodiazepines on the market as the most commonly prescribed anti-anxiety sedative/hypnotic treatment in the US. Not only that, but the most recognizably prescribed benzos, also happen to be the most common and recognizable drugs found on the illicit market. So much so, that certain types of benzo’s can garner schedule I (the most severe) penalties, despite their schedule IV status.

Is Cannabis a Reliable Alternative

It’s no large feat for the imagination to understand why people would be searching for a less invasive solution to their bouts of anxiety. The whole basis of the condition is being buried in needless worry and generalized nervousness. Hallmarked by overwhelming feelings of dread, or the unshakable sense that something horrible is about to happen. While benzodiazepines do dampen the brain's ability to send these messages of malcontent, they also create some more than realistic concerns regarding individual health and wellbeing. So it’s not curious that many anxiety sufferers are looking for a better choice when it comes to quelling their particular brand of concern.

The recent legalization of Cannabis, throughout multiple countries and states, has started to encourage anxiety sufferers of all kinds to look towards the mentally calming effects of cannabis. But does it actually work?

Well- sometimes. There are many factors that are involved with how cannabis actually works within any given bodily system. While some people report feelings of relaxation and pervasive calm, others report an increase in their baseline anxieties. This can have to do with the specific strain of marijuana that is being ingested, or how any one particular body responds to the THC content.

THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is one of many cannabinoids that marijuana contains, and is the primary psycoactant in cannabis. THC works in the body by attaching to THC receptors found in the central nervous system. While benzodiazepines generally affect messenger systems in the brain itself, THC results in a decrease in the concentration of cAMP, a secondary messanger molecule that affects messages that are sent between cells in the body. A decrease in the concentration of cAMP reduces cellular uptake of things like hormones, glucagon, and adrenaline. If this isn’t confusing enough - THC is also considered “non-selective”, which means that it can effect a number of different systems in a number of different ways. Which accounts for some people reporting feelings of calm, while others report feelings of heightened anxiety. It may also actually serve to enhance THC’s therapeutic window (or the ability the drug has to “fix” a number of different problems).

Despite of, or in fact because of, this wide range (and largely misunderstood) therapeutic application, the DEA still schedules THC as a schedule II or schedule III drug, solely based on the fact that there haven’t been many “currently accepted medical use applications” of the drug. THC, as opposed to it’s benzodiazepine counterpart, has an extremely low likelihood of addiction, low dependence liability, with few or any adverse health effects, Meaning, that while it’s unlikely to become addicted to THC, while it’s unlikely to die from repeated use of THC, while it’s even unlikely to cause adverse health effects in the pregnant or geriatric communities- THC is still more highly regulated than it’s benzodiazepine counterpart.

Comparing the Two

Because of these inherent misconceptions, or the “non-selective” nature of THC, cannabis hasn’t received the funding necessary to truly explore it’s ameliorative potential. While drugs like benzodiazepines have a much more direct, and thus quantifiable effect on bodily systems, THC seems to affect many different systems in sometimes unpredictable ways. Making it all the more difficult to ascertain the exact therapeutic effects of cannabis on any one given person.

However, multiple studies have shown that THC or cannabis does hold the genuine potential to reduce the debilitating effects of anxiety in some populations. Which means that the use of cannabis can provide a safe and easily obtainable alternative to benzodiazepines in the treatment of certain anxiety disorders. As a cheaper alternative with drastically lower chances of negative side effects, addiction, and even death, THC use should be a serious consideration when looking for a treatment to personal anxieties.

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