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Cannabis reduces OCD symptoms by half in the short-term

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, report that the severity of their symptoms was reduced by about half within four hours of smoking cannabis, according to a Washington State University study.

The researchers analyzed data inputted into the Strainprint app by people who self-identified as having OCD, a condition characterized by intrusive, persistent thoughts and repetitive behaviors such as compulsively checking if a door is locked. After smoking cannabis, users with OCD reported it reduced their compulsions by 60%, intrusions, or unwanted thoughts, by 49% and anxiety by 52%.

The study, recently published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, also found that higher doses and cannabis with higher concentrations of CBD, or cannabidiol, were associated with larger reductions in compulsions.

“The results overall indicate that cannabis may have some beneficial short-term but not really long-term effects on obsessive-compulsive disorder,” said Carrie Cuttler, the study’s corresponding author and WSU assistant professor of psychology. “To me, the CBD findings are really promising because it is not intoxicating. This is an area of research that would really benefit from clinical trials looking at changes in compulsions, intrusions and anxiety with pure CBD.”

The WSU study drew from data of more than 1,800 cannabis sessions that 87 individuals logged into the Strainprint app over 31 months. The long time period allowed the researchers to assess whether users developed tolerance to cannabis, but those effects were mixed. As people continued to use cannabis, the associated reductions in intrusions became slightly smaller suggesting they were building tolerance, but the relationship between cannabis and reductions in compulsions and anxiety remained fairly constant.

Traditional treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder include exposure and response prevention therapy where people’s irrational thoughts around their behaviors are directly challenged, and prescribing antidepressants called serotonin reuptake inhibitors to reduce symptoms. While these treatments have positive effects for many patients, they do not cure the disorder nor do they work well for every person with OCD.

“We’re trying to build knowledge about the relationship of cannabis use and OCD because it’s an area that is really understudied,” said Dakota Mauzay, a doctoral student in Cuttler’s lab and first author on the paper.

Aside from their own research, the researchers found only one other human study on the topic: a small clinical trial with 12 participants that revealed that there were reductions in OCD symptoms after cannabis use, but these were not much larger than the reductions associated with the placebo.

The WSU researchers noted that one of the limitations of their study was the inability to use a placebo control and an “expectancy effect” may play a role in the results, meaning when people expect to feel better from something they generally do. The data was also from a self-selected sample of cannabis users, and there was variability in the results which means that not everyone experienced the same reductions in symptoms after using cannabis.

However, Cuttler said this analysis of user-provided information via the Strainprint app was especially valuable because it provides a large data set and the participants were using market cannabis in their home environment, as opposed to federally grown cannabis in a lab which may affect their responses. Strainprint’s app is intended to help users determine which types of cannabis work the best for them, but the company provided the WSU researchers free access to users’ anonymized data for research purposes.

Cuttler said this study points out that further research, particularly clinical trials on the cannabis constituent CBD, may reveal a therapeutic potential for people with OCD.

This is the fourth study Cuttler and her colleagues have conducted examining the effects of cannabis on various mental health conditions using the data provided by the app created by the Canadian company Strainprint. Others include studies on how cannabis impacts PTSD symptoms, reduces headache pain, and affects emotional well-being.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) report that the severity of symptoms was reduced by about half within four hours of smoking cannabis. After smoking cannabis, users with OCD reported it reduced their compulsions by 60%, intrusions, or unwanted thoughts, by 49% and anxiety by 52%. The study also found that higher doses and cannabis with higher concentrations of CBD were associated with larger reductions in compulsions.

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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, is a challenging condition to live with. The chronic psychiatric disorder is characterized by persistent intrusive thoughts (often about things that might go wrong) along with urges and compulsions, such as the compulsion to repeatedly check locks or wash hands. And to add to these challenges, those with OCD tend to experience heightened levels of anxiety. While there are a variety of treatment options for OCD, including therapeutic and pharmaceutical options, many patients with the condition report that these treatments are unable to fully manage the condition.

Now, a new study published this month in the Journal of Affective Disorders is pointing towards cannabis as a potential treatment for OCD. The researchers from Washington State University found that acute cannabis use, and especially cannabis with higher levels of CBD, was able to quickly and temporarily reduce symptoms of OCD such as anxiety, compulsions, and intrusive thoughts. Still the symptom reductions for intrusive thoughts lessened over time, making it less clear whether cannabis could be a long term treatment for that particular symptom.

Previous research has already found that those with OCD have a higher likelihood to use cannabis, and researchers have hypothesized that this use is a coping mechanism to tell with the symptoms of OCD. But few studies have investigated whether cannabis is actually effective at reducing OCD symptoms. Those that have investigated the cannabis OCD connection have brought back mixed results.

Commercial cannabis growing in a greenhouse.

A recently published placebo-controlled study found that cannabis did offer symptom relief but not relief that was significantly larger than that found for the placebo group. Still, the potency of the cannabis used in this study was much lower than what is available in the legal cannabis market, and the sample size was small. So it may have been underpowered to find results.

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Case studies on cannabis, as well as synthetic forms of THC (one of the active chemicals in cannabis) have also found some evidence for symptom reduction. And several animal studies have found that CBD is able to reduce compulsive behaviors in rodents.

The researchers on this study sought to investigate this connection further in human subjects, so they utilized an app called Strainprint, which allows cannabis users in Canada to report their starting symptoms, the specific cannabis products and dose used, and the resulting impact those products had on their symptoms. The researchers tracked the responses of 87 individuals who self-identified as having OCD for over two years – looking specifically at inhaled cannabis use like vaping and smoking. Patients evaluated their starting symptoms prior to cannabis use, and the symptoms after cannabis use by responding to questions like “How intrusive are your thoughts?” or “How bad is your compulsive behaviour” on a 0-10 scale.

This study looked at patients who used vaporized or smoked cannabis only. Photographer: Cayce . [+] Clifford/Bloomberg

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Researchers then analyzed the data to see whether cannabis seemed to help or hurt when it came to managing OCD symptoms. The analysis revealed that cannabis use was tied to a reduction in OCD symptoms. In fact, most cannabis sessions recorded resulted in a reduction of symptoms. 95.4% of all sessions resulted in reduction of compulsions, 89.6% resulted in reduction of intrusive thoughts, and 93.8% of sessions resulted in reduction of anxiety.

On the other hand, only 1.9-3% of sessions resulted in a worsening of these symptoms (depending on the symptom).

Ultimately, these patients reported an average 60% reduction in compulsions, 49% reduction in intrusive thoughts and 52% reduction in anxiety.

Interestingly, researchers also had access to the CBD and THC levels in the products used. Calculating this into their analysis, they found that those who used high CBD products reported larger reductions in compulsion symptoms than those using higher THC options. This is consistent with previous animal studies suggesting CBD can aid in reducing compulsive behaviour. Those who used higher doses of cannabis also had larger reductions in compulsion symptoms.

Researchers also noted that cannabis seemed to help more with intrusive thoughts early on in cannabis use. But over time, the impact cannabis use had on intrusive thoughts lessened, suggesting that a tolerance to this benefit may develop over time. Still, cannabis remained effective for symptoms like anxiety and compulsive behavior.

While this study suggests that cannabis could be helpful for treating the symptoms of OCD, it does have some limitations. For one thing the sample was self-identified as having OCD, so it’s possible that some in the study may not actually have a diagnosis of OCD. There was also no placebo control group, so we can’t compare to see whether these impacts are attributable to a placebo effect, like they have been in smaller, earlier studies on lower potency cannabis. These limitations suggest that future rigorous clinical research needs to be conducted to truly answer these questions.

Still, this study points the way, with some evidence that cannabis, and perhaps especially high CBD cannabis, could be a beneficial treatment for those suffering from OCD.

A new study published this month is pointing towards cannabis as a potential treatment for OCD. The researchers from Washington State University found that cannabis use was able to quickly and temporarily reduce symptoms of OCD such as anxiety, compulsions, and intrusive thoughts.