Research indicates that cannabis could be the antidepressant many have been searching for.
Any amount of online research on the benefits of cannabis will turn up a long list of results claiming that it can cure everything from psychological problems to chronic pain and even diabetes. Is there actual proof for these claims? With so many sources to dig through, it can be hard to determine the truth. That’s why we wanted to research various conditions and find out if there’s real evidence that cannabis is an effective treatment for them. This time, depression is under the microscope. Can patients really find relief from their depression by taking cannabis?
More Than Just Feeling Blue
According to the World Health Organization, depression affects nearly 350 million people worldwide. To be clear, depression is not the same as normal, everyday changes in mood or typical responses to stressful life events. Depression is severe and longer-lasting. It’s characterized by extreme sadness that results in a loss of interest in everyday activities, loss of appetite, insomnia, and problems concentrating. For some people, depression is so extreme that they may have thoughts of suicide. Even mild depression can greatly impact one’s ability to function and enjoy day-to-day life.
Treatment for depression can involve various forms of counseling and therapy. It also typically involves prescription antidepressant medications. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are some of the most common medications prescribed to those who are struggling with depression. These medications are useful and can be highly effective at reducing depression symptoms in many people. For some, though, side effects such as drowsiness, upset stomach, agitation, or sexual problems such as reduced libido can be intrusive. This often causes them to go on and off of their medication, creating fluctuations in brain chemistry and a reoccurrence of depression symptoms.
Frustrated with the drawbacks of their prescription medications, many patients and healthcare providers have turned to medical cannabis as a treatment for depression. So far, the results have been promising. A large number of studies have shown cannabis to be effective at alleviating the symptoms of a number of conditions, from chronic pain to anxiety and involuntary movement disorders. Since depression can be a secondary symptom of many of these conditions, that makes cannabis a useful tool in combatting it.
Cannabis is useful for more than just depression as a secondary symptom, though. Research is beginning to show that it’s a powerful tool in treating depression as a primary condition. A 2014 study published by the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs showed that cannabis causes a 75% reduction in symptoms for those who are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In Psychology Today, Dr. Jeremy Spiegel described one of his patients who was struggling with depression. Her doctors had switched her from one prescription medication to another for years. Frustrated with the side effects (as well as the withdrawal symptoms every time she stopped one medication to try another) she finally tried medical cannabis. She found great relief from it. While she must still work to address her underlying psychological issues, cannabis has proved to be helpful in easing her dark moods and lack of energy.
The Science Behind It All
All of the current, positive studies on medical cannabis conclude with the same sentiment: “More research is needed. More studies are needed”. However, more studies are being done every day and so far, the indications for the use of cannabis as a treatment for depression have been encouraging.
A team of neuroscientists from the University of Buffalo released the results of a study in February 2015. As part of the Research Institute on Addictions, these scientists conduct in-depth research on substance use, abuse, and addiction. It was of particular interest to them to see if cannabis – a substance that has long been demonized as only having recreational purposes – could be effective in the medical treatment of depression.
The UB team focused their research on endocannabinoids-naturally-occurring chemicals that bind to receptors in the brain and control things such as emotion and behavior. A problem arises in the brains of people who have a reduced number of endocannabinoids. Boosting levels of these chemicals can be an effective treatment for depression that occurs due to chronic stress.
Studies on rats revealed that marijuana cannabinoids can be used as replacement for endocannabinoids. Dr. Samir Haj-Dahmane, the researcher who led the project, concluded that “using compounds derived from cannabis to restore normal endocannabinoid function could potentially help stabilize moods and ease depression”.
Other studies have pointed to cannabis as being a useful treatment for PTSD, although researchers were never quite sure why it worked. The UB findings on endocannabinoids help reveal the mechanism through which cannabis can helps those who have struggled with depression.
Cannabis Treatment Options
Just like with traditional medications, it’s important that medical cannabis be combined with medical treatment, therapy and counseling in order to address any underlying health or psychological issues.
It’s also important that those who choose medical cannabis to treat depression are encouraged to work with their healthcare providers to figure out what strain and dosage works best for them. As each person is an individual and brain chemistries differ, it may take time and diligence to find out what type of cannabis will provide the most relief with the least side effects.
Your healthcare provider will suggest a specific dosage, but many people get the best results from starting with a very low dose. It’s also beneficial to take a few small doses throughout the day rather than taking one large dose. This is particularly helpful until you know how cannabis will affect you and what side effects to expect. Common side effects may include dry mouth or feeling a bit dizzy.
Medical cannabis provides a world of choices. Just as there are a variety of strains, patients also have options as to the way they ingest cannabis. There is no longer the need to roll up a marijuana cigarette and smoke it – a huge relief for those with lung issues or a sensitivity to smoke. Methods of delivery include oral sprays and drops, pills, patches and vaporizers.
So far, much of the research that’s been done has been good news for those who would like a choice beyond traditional prescription antidepressants. Continued research on cannabis will likely lead to further education of the medical community – as well as society as a whole – about this all-natural, low-side effect treatment for depression.