Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a kind of anxiety disorder marked by neurotic, repetitive thoughts and behaviors. It can manifest in acts such as washing hands dozens of times or checking things repeatedly. OCD affects over two million Americans, with symptoms appearing in people as young as 14 years of age.
Doctors typically turn to various combinations of medications and therapy to help treat OCD. But some research shows that cannabidiol (CBD) can relieve the symptoms of OCD without the risks and side effects of standard pharmaceuticals.
OCD falls into a large group of mental health conditions generally called anxiety disorders. This is because they all involve abnormal activity in the brain’s limbic system and amygdala, which is home to our fear response.
OCD is characterized by two kinds of symptoms that relate to fear and anxiety:
People with OCD experience negative, frightening thoughts that often center on issues such as religion, violence and sex. They feel that they can’t control these thoughts, and they fear they may act on them.
People with OCD are also gripped by compulsive behaviors—things they believe they must do in order to get relief from anxiety and to feel safe. OCD behaviors can include things like:
People with OCD often set an arbitrary number of times an action must be repeated, or a particular set of criteria, in order to relieve the anxiety.
For example, someone may think that they have to wash their hands exactly 10 times in order to feel clean. Or they may feel like they must arrange their desk with everything in a particular spot in order to feel comfortable to work.
If anything happens to interfere with these rituals, the person with OCD can feel extreme anxiety and distress.
OCD affects people differently, and for some, the symptoms are only mildly annoying. For others, though, OCD has a powerful effect on all aspects of life, making it difficult, if not impossible, to hold down a job, make friends or simply relax.
We don’t have a deep understanding of what causes OCD. But we do know that OCD:
Scientists know that many people with OCD appear to have abnormalities in certain areas of the brain, including the hippocampus and amygdala. OCD sufferers also seem to have differences in brain chemistry, including low expression of mood-regulating neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
This is why doctors frequently prescribe medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and certain antidepressant medications for OCD symptoms. But these drugs also have a number of side effects and risks, such as:
A large body of research indicates that CBD appears to be helpful in relieving symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mood disorders without these risks.
CBD is one of the most abundant compounds in cannabis. It doesn’t cause a consumer to heel high like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can, and it plays a powerful role in supporting the body’s systems for self-regulation and homeostasis, or balance.
The driving force behind many of these regulatory systems is the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The ECS is a rich network of receptors found throughout the body and brain. Endocannabinoids that the body produces, as well as cannabinoids from the cannabis plant interact with ECS receptors. There are two kinds of ECS receptors: CB1 and CB2. THC interacts directly with the CB1 receptor.
But CBD doesn’t necessarily activate either of the ECS receptors directly. What it appears to do, though, is act on a variety of other processes in the body to help the ECS support the healthy functioning of the immune system, cognitive processes and mood.
For example, serotonin is an important neurotransmitter for regulating mood—so much so that it’s been called the feel-good chemical. CBD can activate serotonin receptors to trigger the same effects, which promote feelings of calmness and relaxation.
The brain also produces calming chemicals such as gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), to damp down the feelings that chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine trigger, such as:
Research shows that CBD promotes the expression of GABA, further helping reduce stress and anxiety.
CBD also supports the production of anandamide, one of the body’s natural endocannabinoids. Anandamide promotes feelings of well-being and calmness.
But another chemical called FAAH can break anandamide down quickly in the brain. CBD slows the expression of FAAH, so that more anandamide remains available to the brain, helping express these feelings of calm and bliss.
These effects help explain why CBD can be an effective treatment for mood disorders such as anxiety and depression—and why it can help ease the symptoms of OCD as well.
Research specifically related to the use of CBD for OCD is limited. The clearest connection comes from a 2015 study published in the journal Neurotherapeutics, which reports on the use of CBD in the treatment of a variety of anxiety related disorders, including OCD. The researchers concluded that CBD helped relieve the symptoms of OCD and other disorders like PTSD and social anxiety disorder.
Like other anxiety disorders, OCD arises from disturbances in the brain’s limbic system. And research now indicates that CBD can help restore balance in this system, because of its demonstrated ability to:
Experts say that OCD, like many mood disorders, can’t be cured. But CBD in all its forms may provide relief from its stressful symptoms, without the side effects of standard anxiety medications.
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