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Can medical cannabis help to mend our post-pandemic mental health?

It hasn’t been easy for much of the UK’s adult population. According to statistics gathered by the Mental Health Foundation, anxiety and depression increased dramatically from the moment the first national lockdown came into force. 

At that time, the Foundation reported a 62% increase in feelings of anxiety, worry and stress brought on by the pandemic across the nation. 

More than a year later, with the promise of a vaccine and a roadmap back to normality, it seems we have learned to cope better. The Foundation’s latest statistics show British adults are feeling much more hopeful than before. An estimated 30% of us feel more hopeful now compared to only 14% in March 2020, according to the report. 

Can medical cannabis help our mental health? 

While further clinical studies are needed to ascertain how beneficial cannabinoid therapies might be when it comes to brain health, there is sufficient early evidence to suggest CBD may help us manage stress, low mood and sleep disruption, all factors known to contribute to poor mental health. 

A review of preliminary research into medical cannabis for psychiatric disorders concluded that on its own, CBD has the potential to help those with social anxiety. 

The researchers in this case analysed and reviewed several clinical and observational trials carried out by doctors and academics. They concluded that given the favourable safety profile of cannabinoids observed, “there is clearly a strong case for encouraging further research” in this area.  

How can I access medical cannabis for my mental health? 

Medical cannabis is legal and available in the UK but is only obtainable through a private network of specialist clinicians. Limited on the NHS to a brief list of conditions, it is estimated that just a handful of patients have been granted a prescription through the public route since the law reform in November 2018. The health authorities say wider access cannot be provided until robust clinical data can be observed. 

In the wake of these limitations to access, a private sector of medical cannabis clinics has emerged across the UK. At these clinics, patients pay to access doctors on the specialist register. Only those on this list can issue a prescription for a cannabis-based prescription and they are only permitted to do so if every other course of treatment has failed. 

Among the conditions which cannabis is prescribed for at one clinic in London are insomnia, mental health disorders and chronic pain. 

Medical cannabis in bipolar research 

Bipolar depression is a mental health condition known to affect 1.3 million people in the UK. According to the NHS, bipolar episodes can last from 3 to 6 months if left untreated. Thousands of miles away in Brazil, a world first clinical trial is underway to find out if medical cannabis is a viable course of treatment for patients of bipolar depression. The researchers say current treatments of bipolar depression are only partially effective. Over a period of 12 weeks, 100 subjects will be administered 150-300mg of CBD per day or a placebo. The results are anticipated to be published in the summer of 2022. 

Closer to home at the University College London, a 2020 study investigated CBD as a stimulant for cerebral blood flow to the hippocampus region of the brain. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and learning. It is also the part of the brain known to be affected by psychiatric disorders. 

In this first of a kind study, a single dose of CBD was found to increase blood flow to this location in the brain. Of the promising preliminary results, the lead author and professor at UCL Psychiatry, Dr Michael Bloomfield, said:

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to find that CBD increases blood flow to key regions involved in memory processing, particularly the hippocampus. This supports the view that CBD has region-specific blood flow effects in the human brain, which has previously been disputed.”

Is CBD key to a better night’s sleep?  

Since its rise in popularity, CBD has been associated with sleep with an abundance of anecdotal testimonies claiming the cannabinoid helps with insomnia and restlessness. Now the research is catching up where the wellness products and pharma-grade oils are both concerned. 

Cannabinoids like CBD work with the body’s natural endocannabinoid system, promoting homeostasis and regulating circadian rhythms.  The body’s CB1 receptors are found in the brain, near the centres responsible for our sleep, mood and pain perception, according to experts. 

CBD increases the body’s natural level of an endocannabinoid called Anandamide and this is what helps to regulate sleep patterns and anxiety which often prevents a good night’s sleep. 

From June 2016 to May 2018, researchers analysed the sleep patterns of 409 people with insomnia. Before beginning the study, participants were asked to rate their insomnia symptoms on a scale of 1 to 10, the higher the number, the worse their sleep. On average, participants gave their sleep cycle a 6.6 out of 10. Two years later, that average was reduced as low as 2.2 out of 10. It’s worth highlighting that the delivery method for patients of this study was cannabis flower which is illegal in the UK and many European countries.

A more recent study also showed promise for CBD in treating sleep disorders. After taking 25mg CBD capsules after dinner for a month, 67% of patients reported better sleep. 

Dr Elisabeth Philipps is a neuroscientist specialising in the endocannabinoid system. She says CBD is no ‘magic bullet’ but adds that it does have something to offer when it comes to sleep. 

CBD does not act as a sedative and does not alter healthy sleep patterns, which is the problem with alcohol and sleep medications. 

Whilst we shouldn’t presume that CBD is the magic bullet for all our sleep problems, the research is beginning to suggest that CBD and other phytocannabinoids have a lot to offer. Yes, large-scale trials with hundreds of people are needed to better understand the exact mechanisms and benefits but from my own personal use and clinical experience, adding a CBD product such as oil or capsules from a reputable brand into your bedtime routine will help to improve sleep quality and energy throughout the day.” 

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