Anxiety is one of the most common ailments that people treat with cannabis. However, the evidence to date is mixed as to whether cannabis actually helps or worsens symptoms of anxiety.

That’s because a strain’s chemical composition or chemovar—the unique proportions of specific cannabinoids and terpenes produced by individual strains—likely has a significant impact. Here’s how researchers are working to identify cannabis strains with the greatest anxiolytic effect.

Cannabis and Anxiety

It’s not hard to find anecdotal evidence touting the ability of cannabis to help relieve symptoms of anxiety. However, the scientific research to date appears to be more conflicting. Some studies have demonstrated that cannabis use may help blunt the stress response. And the cannabinoid CBD has been identified as a promising anti-anxiety drug candidate.

In contrast, feelings of anxiety and paranoia are often associated with cannabis intoxication. And one study found that cannabis users had a consistently higher prevalence of anxiety disorders, although the nature of the relationship between the two remains unclear.

Why the Strain Matters

Conflicting evidence is likely due in part to the chemical diversity of the cannabis plant. Unlike a medication such as tylenol which contains a single active ingredient, cannabis produces hundreds of chemical compounds including over a hundred cannabinoids. Moreover, no two strains are alike—each produces its own combination of cannabinoids as well as terpenes that synergize to produce a distinct effect.

Finding the Right Strains for Anxiety

Researchers at Whistler Therapeutics, a Canadian biopharmaceutical and cannabis research company, published a study in which they set out to identify correlations between anxiolytic activity and cannabis chemotype. The researcher first surveyed nearly 500 medicinal cannabis patients from a single dispensary and asked them to rate strains as most or least effective for treating anxiety.

With this strain ranking, the researchers then analyzed each strain for terpene and cannabinoid content and compared the profiles of strains ranked most highly for anxiety relief. They found that strains identified by patients as being effective for anxiety shared a few traits in common.

First, the strains rated most effective for anxiety tended to have slightly higher levels of THC than those rated least effective. Second, they also shared several terpenes in common including:

  • Trans-nerolidol
  • Guiaol
  • Eucalyptol
  • ɣ-terpinene
  • α-phellandrene
  • 3-carene

This underscores the importance of terpene composition and the ability of terpenes to impart their own therapeutic benefits.

It’s also important to note that individual differences such as genetics and tolerance, can have a significant impact on how a person and their anxiety symptoms respond to a particular strain. Therefore, it may take some trial and error before you find that strain that works best for you.

While this study was small, it represents an important first step in establishing which cannabis chemotype works best for which condition. As restrictions around the world begin to loosen and cannabis becomes more well-studied, the future of cannabis cultivation could bring us designer strains bred for highly-specific effects. This also highlights the increasing importance of rigorous cannabis testing to better inform cultivators and retailers and empower consumers.