Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is a common mental health condition. Figures from the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that it affects 1.2% of the adult population in the United States.
OCD was previously classed as an anxiety disorder. Psychiatrists listed it alongside generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although experts have now removed OCD from the list of anxiety disorders, it does feature anxiety as a primary symptom.
This anxiety comes hand in hand with uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions). These symptoms can have a significant impact on the sufferer’s life, making it hard to maintain work and healthy relationships.
With limited treatment options, many OCD patients have turned to medical marijuana for relief. But does cannabis help OCD, or make it worse? Let’s take a look at the facts.
What Is OCD?
Most people have experienced obsessive thoughts or compulsive behavior at some point in their lives. For example, going on vacation and panicking about whether they left the gas on, or double-checking that the door is locked, even though they know it is.
However, for people with OCD, these problems can reach a whole new level. Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors become entirely uncontrollable. When this happens, they can begin to take over the person’s life, even though they derive no pleasure from them.
Some people experience OCD so severe that their symptoms get in the way of everyday activities. Working or studying becomes more difficult, and interpersonal relationships can be strained.
Symptoms of OCD
The key symptoms of OCD are obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Some common themes that affect people with OCD include:
- Fear of dirt and germs
- Forbidden or taboo thoughts
- Feelings of aggression toward themselves or others
- A need for symmetry and order
These thoughts lead to corresponding behavior, such as:
- Excessive hand washing or cleaning
- Repeatedly checking things
- Arranging objects in a certain way
- Compulsive counting
In addition to these critical symptoms of OCD, sufferers are often affected by mood disorders such as anxiety or depression.
Experts believe that OCD arises from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. It appears that OCD patients’ brains function slightly differently from those of healthy people. These differences include abnormal activity in the frontal cortex and subcortical structures. These areas help to regulate mood and emotions, among other things.
Doctors usually recommend a combination of medication and psychotherapy to treat OCD. The most common medication is a class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Like all medicines, SSRIs can cause several side effects. These include:
- Dry mouth
- Digestive issues
- Sexual dysfunction
For this reason, many patients avoid taking medication like SSRIs in favor of more natural alternatives like cannabis. But is it really a viable option?
Does Cannabis Help OCD?
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests cannabis could help to relieve anxiety disorders. But how about OCD?
Cannabis contains numerous active compounds, including THC and CBD. THC is the compound which we associate with getting high. It also has some therapeutic benefits, including relieving pain, relaxing the muscles, and stimulating the appetite.
On the other hand, CBD does not have intoxicating effects but may be useful for a variety of medical conditions. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory and also has antioxidant and neuroprotective properties.
THC and CBD exert their effects by interacting with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). This system is responsible for regulating many different physiological and psychological functions. It has a close relationship with several neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. Therefore, by altering ECS activity, cannabis can dramatically influence our mood and emotions.
It could, therefore, potentially be helpful for some people with OCD. However, the situation is not straightforward.
THC or CBD for OCD?
As we mentioned, THC and CBD have slightly different effects on the body. This is highly significant when it comes to treating OCD with cannabis.
In low doses, THC can have a positive impact on symptoms such as anxiety and depression. However, in higher doses, it has the opposite effect. In some people, it can even trigger episodes of panic and paranoia.
This is a problem when it comes to using cannabis for OCD and anxiety disorders. Nowadays, cannabis breeders seem set on creating strains that pack in as much THC as possible to maximize their potency. Unfortunately, doing this also increases the risk of side effects significantly.
Therefore, people who are prone to feelings of anxiety would be wise to steer clear of these potent, high-THC strains. They may be better off considering CBD instead.
CBD lacks the psychedelic effects of THC. It will not get you high and should not increase anxious thoughts and feelings. In fact, there is evidence that CBD counteracts the effects of THC to some extent. It reduces the risk of THC’s side effects and should make for a mellower high.
It is possible to find cannabis strains which have a high CBD content and minimal THC. These high-CBD strains include:
These strains might provide a good compromise for anyone wanting to benefit from cannabis’ anti-anxiety effects without risking overdoing it and making things worse.
Another possibility is CBD oil. This oil is generally extracted from industrial hemp and has a low THC content of 0.3% or less. There are hundreds of CBD oil brands on the market today as people become more aware of its potential benefits.
There is also mounting evidence that CBD is useful for anxiety, possibly more so than traditional cannabis.
Studies on Cannabis and OCD
Although there are several studies on cannabis and anxiety, there is little research specifically on OCD.
One study on OCD and cannabis appeared in Addictive Behaviors in 2017. It looked at 430 young adult cannabis users, who took an online survey assessing various measures of OCD. They also answered questions about their cannabis use, misuse, and motives for using.
The results showed that those who misused cannabis had higher OCD scores, specifically in the field of ‘obsessing.’ Furthermore, it seemed that factors like stress, anxiety, and depression did not affect these results. The authors concluded that OCD patients should avoid cannabis due to the risk of developing a misuse disorder.
However, this conclusion is not supported by animal studies, which have found that cannabis, specifically CBD, reduces compulsive behavior. One 2010 study for Behavioural Pharmacology used a marble-burying test to assess compulsive behavior in mice. The authors found that after administering CBD, the mice buried significantly fewer marbles, an indication of reduced compulsive behavior.
The effects of CBD on the mice were less dramatic than those of the SSRI paroxetine, or the benzodiazepine diazepam. However, the results were sustained even after seven days of continuous CBD administration. Diazepam, on the other hand, did not provide such long-lasting benefits.
Another, more recent, study aimed to assess the effects of high-THC and high-CBD cannabis on 14 patients with OCD. The placebo-controlled study was completed in early 2019, and the results are pending. Once available, the findings of this study should provide more insight into the effects of THC and CBD on OCD.
Does Cannabis Help OCD? Final Thoughts
Research into cannabis and obsessive-compulsive disorder is still very much ongoing. The existing evidence is somewhat contradictory, making it impossible to say for sure whether cannabis helps or harms OCD.
What we do know is that hefty doses of THC can increase anxiety and may be detrimental for people with this condition. There are, however, safer alternatives such as high-CBD/low-THC cannabis strains and commercial CBD oils.
That said, cannabis and CBD are not a substitute for proper medical care, and you should not see them as such.
If you suffer from OCD, or any other condition, consult your physician before using any form of cannabis therapy. They will ensure that this treatment is suitable for you and does not interact with any medication you are taking. They will also help you to find a safe and effective dosage.
If you have used cannabis for OCD, we would love to hear from you. Let us know about your experience in the comments below.