Women’s Health Research at Yale announced funding to investigate how the presumably non-intoxicating cannabis ingredient cannabidiol (CBD) affects the brain, and if it affects women and men differently. CBD use is growing in popularity exponentially, yet the safety and effectiveness of this non-regulated category of products are unknown.
“Many people — mostly women — are using CBD to augment or replace another medication, particularly anxiety medications,” said Dr. Sarah Lichenstein, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and the study’s lead researcher. “But we know so little about how this substance affects our nervous system, and because research on this topic has been done mostly on men, we know almost nothing about the influence of sex. Determining the effects of a single dose of CBD in women is an essential early step toward establishing guidelines to maximize the safety and efficacy of the many products with this ingredient currently being sold with untested medical claims.”
Anxiety disorders are twice as prevalent among women than men, affecting one in three women over a lifetime. Such disorders are linked to higher unemployment rates, interpersonal difficulties, major depression, higher suicide rates, and substantially higher health care costs. The most commonly prescribed medications for anxiety are benzodiazepines, which are twice as likely to be prescribed to women than men and are associated with significant risk for abuse and fatal overdose when combined with opioids or alcohol.
CBD presents a potentially promising alternative to benzodiazepines, and its use has exploded in recent years — 64 million Americans reporting that they tried CBD in 2019. Some research has shown the capacity for CBD to reduce anxiety. But even though retailers in all 50 states sell more than 1,000 CBD-infused products — from tinctures, gummies, and topical creams to capsules, pet products, and bath bombs — little is known about their biochemical properties, how they might work, and how they might work differently for women and men.
With funding from WHRY, Dr. Lichenstein is conducting a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study to determine neurological and subjective responses to CBD in women, in collaboration with Drs. Sarah Yip and Ayana Jordan. Her team will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activity viewed through blood flow into key areas of the brain associated with stress, anticipating that CBD’s effects will be heightened among female participants in comparison to data on male participants from the vast majority of current published research on this topic. In addition, using established questionnaires and pulse and blood pressure measurements, Dr. Lichenstein’s team will test baseline levels of anxiety and subjective and physiological effects of CBD. With these data, the researchers plan to secure additional funding to establish whether there is a scientific basis for the use of CBD as a treatment for women with anxiety disorders.
“Dr. Lichenstein’s study will help us to understand the mechanisms underlying CBD and whether it has therapeutic potential for anxiety,” said WHRY Director Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D. “This will ultimately contribute toward establishing necessary and overdue evidence-based dosing guidelines to benefit the millions of women who are using these products to treat their anxiety.”