We hear a lot about how cannabis has helped people suffering from a wide variety of physical ailments, from cancer to glaucoma to AIDS. Stories about using cannabis to treat psychological disorders such as depression, however, are less common. Fortunately, as cannabis sheds the stigma that has long been associated with its use, more people are speaking out about how cannabis has helped them deal with mental illness. Doctors and researchers are also beginning to come out in favor of cannabis and its potential to treat psychological disorders.
What is Depression?
Depression is a complex mood disorder that often leaves sufferers unable to work, eat, sleep or have fun due to their inability to feel joy or pleasure. Several forms of depression exist:
- Major depression — constant inability to enjoy life for six months or more
- Dysthymia — at least two years of mild depression with stable periods
- Bipolar disorder or manic depression — depression with rapid mood changes, often accompanied by hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, rapid speech, and insomnia
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — depression triggered by seasonal changes
The World Health Organization estimates 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression globally. That makes it the leading cause of disability worldwide.
What are the Causes of Depression?
- Abuse — physical, sexual or emotional
- Conflict — with family, friends or loved ones
- Loss — such as the death of a loved one
- Major transitions or life events
- Serious illness
- Stress — chronic stress is one of the leading causes of depression
- Substance abuse
What are the Symptoms of Depression?
No two people are the same, but hopelessness and lethargy are common symptoms, along with low self-worth, guilt, or shame. It can leave a person tired and unable to concentrate or suppress negative thoughts, leading to short tempers and irritability. It can be difficult to make decisions or remember things. Depression can also spur reckless behavior along with significant weight fluctuation and sleep issues. Insignificant tasks may become excruciatingly exhausting and time-consuming.
Depression can ultimately lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recorded more than 42,000 reported suicides in 2014. That's a life every 15 minutes. Although depression affects more women than men, more than 75 percent of suicides in 2014 were men.
Current Treatments for Depression
Since a combination of biological, psychological and social factors can cause depression, there is no straightforward treatment or cure. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important. Eliminate stressors, add meditation to your routine, exercise regularly to boost endorphins, eat nutritious and balanced meals, and sleep 7 to 9 hours each day.
Psychotherapy can be utilized to help recognize and express emotions while building the skills needed to cope with adversity, trauma, and loss. Forms of therapy may include cognitive behavioral therapy, family-focused therapy, or interpersonal therapy.
Antidepressants alone don’t treat depression, and many can take several weeks to take effect. Side effects include dizziness, disorientation, and weight gain. Be sure to talk to your doctor.
How Does Cannabis Help Depression?
Cannabis has been used to treat depression throughout history. In 1621, English clergyman Robert Burton recommended its use in his book The Anatomy of Melancholy, while doctors in India during the same period were actively using it to treat their patients’ depression.
Cannabis is a faster-working alternative to antidepressants that stimulates the endocannabinoid system and speeds up the growth and development of nervous tissue with little to no troublesome side effects. This natural remedy offers patients peace of mind and battles stress by enhancing mood, providing energy and focus, relieving anxiety, inducing hunger, and combating insomnia.
Occasional or daily cannabis consumers have lower levels of depressive symptoms than non-users, a 2006 study found. Researchers at McGill University, in Montreal, discovered that THC in low doses can serve as an antidepressant and produces serotonin — but they also found that high doses of THC can worsen depression symptoms. The cannabinoids THC and CBD are known to exert sedative, antidepressant, and antipsychotic effects on consumers.
The University Medical Center Utrecht, in the Netherlands, touted marijuana as a cure for depression and other mental illnesses after conducting a study that found THC can alter the response to negative images or emotions by activating the endocannabinoid system in the brain. Another study linked cannabis use to improved cognitive function in people suffering from bipolar disorder.
Further research needs to be done, but as long as the federal government continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule I drug, research will continue to be limited. Moreover, depression is not a qualifying condition in most states to obtain a cannabis recommendation. Nonetheless, we do know stress is one of the leading causes of depression, and moderate use of cannabis appears to alleviate stress and stabilize moods.
Samir Haj-Dahmane, a senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions who studies chronic stress and depression, concurs: “Chronic stress is one of the major causes of depression,” Haj-Dahmane says. “Using compounds derived from cannabis — marijuana — to restore normal endocannabinoid function could potentially help stabilize moods and ease depression.”