CBD otherwise known as Cannabidiol, is the cannabis compound of the moment. Controlling epileptic seizures, reducing inflammation, and easing chronic pain are just some of its reported benefits. But researchers are looking into a potential use for CBD that might just surprise you – as a pharmacological treatment for treating substance abuse and addiction.
Yes, you heard it right. A compound found in cannabis, the plant classified as a Schedule 1 drug because of its purported ‘potential for abuse,’ is currently the subject of several clinical trials testing its efficacy for treating addiction to everything from heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, tobacco, alcohol, and even cannabis itself.
The fact that CBD is non-addictive, non-psychoactive, is safe to take in doses up to 1500 mg a day, and appears to reduce the drug cravings and anxiety experienced by addicts, means that CBD shows great promise as a non-toxic way to aid the addiction recovery process.
What is addiction?
But to understand why there is so much interest in CBD as a method for treating substance abuse, we must first look at the nature of addiction.
The American Society of Disease Medicine characterizes addiction by a subject’s “inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”
Drugs target the craving/ relapse cycle
In addiction treatment, targeting craving and relapse after an initial withdrawal period is a major target of pharmacotherapies, as one often leads to the other. According to Narconon.org, ‘an addicted person experiencing drug cravings will feel like life itself is dependent on getting and consuming whatever substance is causing those cravings. They will feel justified in saying or doing whatever it takes to feel that satisfaction and relief.”
Scientists have found that the symptoms of craving are mediated by increased transmission of the neurotransmitter, glutamate found in areas of the brain such as the hippocampus, the region in the brain responsible for learning and memory. This may explain why cravings such as anxiety, irritability, sweating and palpitations can occur years into abstinence, when a situation or person stimulates a drug related memory, creating a greater risk of relapse.
Can CBD reduce craving?
Most research until now has been into the use of CBD for heroin addiction with both preclinical research and some small pilot studies showing promising results. While CBD doesn’t change the effect of the initial administration of the drug (unlike THC, which can make the effect of heroin stronger), scientists have observed a lessening of what are known as ‘cue-induced cravings’, a type of craving brought on by a stimulus, such as when smokers associate finishing a meal with lighting up a cigarette.
In a double blind, placebo study heroin addicts were administered a single dose of CBD over 3 consecutive days. Their propensity for craving was then tested by exposing them to opioid related and neutral video stimuli at 1 hour, 24 hours and 7 days after the CBD was given. Compared to the placebo, the subjects taking CBD found their cravings were lessened, an effect that lasted for 7 days after treatment.
Less anxiety experienced
Furthermore, a reduction in anxiety levels were also noted, with the study’s author highlighting the “potential therapeutic efficacy of CBD to reduce negative states in opioid-dependent individuals, which may, in turn, predict reduced craving and hence reduce the likelihood of relapse behavior.” This could be due to CBD’s partial activation of the 5HT1-A serotonin receptor, which scientists believe explains its general anti-anxiety and mood enhancing effect.
However, it’s still not clear why CBD reduces cue-induced cravings. Previous preclinical trials on rats found that alterations in glutamate transmission and endocannabinoid signalling were normalised after administering CBD. And the fact that these changes remain present for 7 days after the subjects had been given CBD suggests a “long-term impact on synaptic plasticity” may occur. This essentially means that the addict’s brain has undergone a kind of rewiring that may reduce craving and relapse on a more long term basis. Exciting news for anyone who has witnessed the never ending cycle of abstinence and reusing experienced by many addicts.
Tobacco cravings also alleviated by CBD
Similar findings were observed in a study carried out by University College London, in which cigarette smokers were given an inhaler containing CBD. 24 smokers were recruited and split into two groups: the CBD and the placebo. Both groups were encouraged to use their inhaler whenever they felt the urge to smoke a cigarette. The group using the CBD inhaler found that they smoked 40% less cigarettes, compared to the placebo group where there was no change.
The authors noted, “we found that CBD seems to reduce the salience of cues. It also can reduce anxiety and may affect a memory process called ‘reconsolidation,’ which is when a memory of the reward of smoking is re-activated by seeing someone smoking, it is rendered vulnerable to destruction.”
A current clinical trial is also underway investigating the effects of CBD on cocaine craving and relapse.
Can cannabis addiction be treated by CBD?
But perhaps the most surprising use of CBD in addiction is in the treatment of what’s been termed ‘Cannabis Misuse Disorder.’ Researchers have found that CBD can reduce “wanting” and “liking” of cannabis related stimuli suggesting “that CBD has potential as a treatment for cannabis dependence.”
A 2012 study on a 19 year old patient in Brazil who had smoked cannabis since the age of 13, suggested that CBD can also reduce withdrawal symptoms from cannabis. Researchers found that by administering synthetic cannabidiol, the subject’s withdrawal symptoms eased after a few days, and she was able to successfully quit her addiction.
A further randomised trial is underway at University College London to find the most effective dose of Cannabidiol for reducing cannabis use over a 4 week period, which will be followed by a stage two trial to determine whether this is an effective treatment for cannabis dependence.
CBD repairs damage caused to the brain by addiction
Serious addiction ravages the body, but also causes long term neurodegeneration, associated with the over-activation of glutamate receptors resulting in a progressive loss of neurons.
CBD has been patented by the US Federal government as a neuroprotectant due to its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Its ability to inhibit glutamate transmission also makes it of particular interest in combatting the damage caused by alcohol or drug related neurotoxicity.
In a study carried out on rodent models, CBD was found to lessen the neurodegeneration caused by alcohol abuse. 5% CBD gel was applied transdermally resulting in a 48% reduction in neurodegeneration in the entorhinal cortex which the researchers suggest demonstrates “the feasibility of using CBD transdermal delivery systems for the treatment of alcohol-induced neurodegeneration.”
So, as counterintuitive as it might initially seem to suggest that a compound found in the cannabis plant might combat drug and alcohol addiction, larger scale clinical studies may soon reveal whether Cannabidiol can indeed lessen the craving/relapse cycle associated with substance abuse, as well as easing withdrawal symptoms.
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