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The Medical Minute: Could Cannabis Be the Next Antidepressant?

Experiential evidence has long told us about marijuana’s value in combatting stress, depression, and anxiety disorders. Emerging research on the body’s endocannabinoid system has substantiated these claims by showing that there’s much more going on in the brain than a high. 

The U.S. federal government recently approved a study that would allow researchers at the University of Arizona to evaluate cannabis’ benefits in individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And there was much rejoicing, but we have a long way to go before the plant’s antidepressant and antianxiety effects are acknowledged by political forces.

This week’s Medical Minute is dedicated to the merging of cannabis and mental health, a union we hope to see bloom in upcoming years as research continues to bolster what cannabis patients and advocates already know.

1. A Potential PTSD Cure in Cannabinoids?

A few weeks ago at the Canadian Depression Research and Intervention Network (CDRIN) Conference, a professor from NYU announced an upcoming project that would explore the efficacy of a marijuana-mimicking pill for PTSD patients. This study piggybacks off the discovery that PTSD sufferers have a shortage of natural marijuana-like chemicals called endocannabinoids. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD found in the cannabis plant can help correct those deficiencies.

Unfortunately, synthetic marijuana pills containing one isolated compound are less effective than marijuana flowers and whole-plant extracts, which contain hundreds of therapeutic compounds working synergistically. Still, baby steps are better than no steps at all.

2. Endocannabinoid Receptors Linked to Happiness

When cannabis is consumed, chemical compounds like THC bind to receptors throughout the brain and body. Receptors centralized in the brain are called CB1 receptors, and a recent study analyzed these structures as they relate to subjective reports of happiness. Their findings have nothing to do with cannabis consumption; rather, they discovered that subjects with certain genetic variations of these CB1 receptors reported higher happiness ratings. 

What does this have to do with cannabis? We aren’t sure yet, but given what we know already about cannabinoids and their special relationship with these receptors, this study could motivate further exploration of the endocannabinoid system as a target for cannabis-based medicines.  

3. Antidepressants and Cannabinoids Team Up

In the United States, antidepressant medications are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs while cannabis remains top dog among illicit substances. Amazingly, very little research has been conducted on the interaction of the two even though they are often used in conjunction. Last month, however, a Polish study scratched the surface by discovering that antidepressant medication prompted an increase in the body’s production of natural endocannabinoids

As much as we’d like to tell you exactly what this means for cannabis and antidepressant users, not even the study’s authors are sure. Still, the results have researchers asking crucial questions about the endocannabinoid system and its regulatory role in brain chemistry. This system, discovered only within the last few decades, holds exciting medical promise, and it’s difficult to remain patient while laws continue to block its exploration. 

Image sources: Oskar Kokoschka's Dent Du Midi, New York, London, and View of Prague