Medical Cannabis for the Treatment of Depression

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A staggering 18 million Americans adults suffer from depression each year- and those are only the cases that have been documented! Sadly there are many others who suffer from untreated depression. With numbers this high, it is very likely that you or someone you love has experienced depression at some point this year. With these statistics, depression can possibly be referred to as a pandemic needing immediate treatment. Medical professionals have of course developed a variety of solutions and treatment plans, including medication and therapy. These options are not the only ones available, however, and many patients are turning to medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, in an effort to treat their symptoms of depression.

Understanding Depression

According to the Mayo Clinic, depression is “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.” Also known as Major Depressive Disorder or Clinical Depression, the symptoms of this disorder can cause an ongoing feeling of sadness and can lead to a variety of emotional as well as unwanted physical problems. People with depression can find themselves having difficulty in performing routine activities such as eating or sleeping due to their inability to feel pleasure or joy. 

There are several forms of depression including Major Depression, Dysthymia, Bipolar Disorder, and Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Major depression is present when the patient has been unable to enjoy their life for 6 months or longer. Dysthymia is present when the patient has been experiencing mild symptoms of depression for at least two years with occasional periods of stability. Bipolar Disorder, also known as manic depression, is a type of depression that involves a rapid switch between moods which can also be associated with impulsive behaviors and periods of hyperactivity as well as insomnia. Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) is a type of depression which is triggered by seasonal changes and generally occurs during the Fall and Winter months with symptoms usually subsiding by Spring.

What are the Causes of Depression?

Though the exact cause of depression is still unknown, mental health professionals believe there may be factors which strongly contribute to whether or not certain people will be more susceptible to depression than others. Depression can be triggered by a specific stressful or traumatic event such as the death of a loved one, financial troubles, abuse, divorce, or other similar events which can lead to a person feeling sadness and anxiety or loss. There are also biological factors which can lead to depression. Medical researchers studying the brains of depressed people have noticed some anatomical changes. Genetic or inherited traits can also make depression more likely to occur. Scientists have noted a link between relatives who share depression, alcoholism, and suicidal tendencies. Hormonal changes such as menopause, pregnancy, and thyroid imbalances can also trigger depression. 

Medical cannabis researchers are also beginning to notice the relationship between the body’s endocannabinoid system and the role it plays in regulating the balance between body and mind. If there is an incorrect signal between the neurotransmitters and the receptors there could be a shift in a person’s mood, leading to feelings of depression. 

Symptoms of Depression

While no two people experience depression in the same way, in general feelings of hopelessness and lack of energy are very common. Also common are feelings of lowered self esteem and guilt and/or shame. It is also not uncommon for people with depression to be in a perpetual state of exhaustion and with difficulty concentrating. Negative or unwanted thoughts can be difficult to get rid of and can lead to mood swings and lashing out. Memory is sometimes affected and so is the ability to effectively make decisions. Dangerous or reckless behavior is sometimes seen in people with depression as well as difficulty sleeping and weight loss or weight gain. 

Current Treatments and Their Side Effects

Due to there being a variety of factors, both biological and psychosocial, which trigger depression, there is no one particular cure or treatment plan that medical professionals can agree upon for the treatment of depression. That being said, the two most common treatments for depression are therapy and antidepressant medications. Therapy involves the discussion of the patient’s thoughts and corresponding emotions with a mental health professional and usually takes place in an outpatient or clinical environment. The three main types of therapy are behavior therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, behavior therapy, and cognitive behavior therapy all focus on attempting to change negative thoughts and behaviors which are linked to psychological trauma or pain and thereby adjusting the patient’s emotional response to stress. This form of treatment, while beneficial for some patients, can be very subjective and doesn’t work for all patients. 

Antidepressant medications are prescribed to help relieve patients of the negative symptoms of depression. Doctors and other mental health professionals will work with a patient in an attempt to prescribe the medication which will produce the best results. This process can include quite a bit of trial and error due to each medication having different effects depending on the patient and their symptoms. There are a variety of medications currently on the market for treating depression including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), anxiolytics, antipsychotics, and general antidepressants. Unfortunately, these medications are often associated with negative side effects such as nausea, drowsiness, disorientation, sexual issues, blurred vision, muscle spasms, addiction, and weight gain.  Antidepressant medications don’t cure depression on their own and can take many weeks to take effect. Please speak with a mental health professional before taking any of the medications discussed here.

How Medical Cannabis Can Help

Cannabis has been used as a treatment for depression for hundreds of years across various cultures. It has been well-documented that cannabis has the ability to elevate moods and increase energy. It begins to take effect at a rate which is much faster than antidepressants and works immediately to stimulate the endocannabinoid system without the negative side effects of pharmaceutical medications. Medical cannabis has the ability to relieve stress, stimulate the appetite, combat insomnia, and eliminate the physical pain– symptoms which are unfortunately too common for patients suffering with depression. 

Recent studies have confirmed that medical cannabis is an effective treatment for the symptoms of depression. A 2006 study from McGill University discovered that the cannabinoid THC taken at smaller doses can produce serotonin. In 2013, at University Medical Center Utrecht, researchers again found cannabis to be curative for depression and other mental illnesses after observing how THC can change the response to negative imagery and negative emotions by stimulating the connection between the brain and the body’s own endocannabinoid system. 

Conversely, the 2006 McGill University study also stated that very high doses of THC can actually worsen depression symptoms.  It is for this reason that it is highly encouraged that each patient speak with a qualified medical cannabis practitioner before beginning a treatment plan for depression. The correct strain, dosage, and method of ingestion is crucial for each patient’s success. With a wide variety of products available on the market such as edibles, tinctures, full extract oils, and fast-acting vaporizers, it can be overwhelming for consumers to make a correct and well-informed choice. By working with a dedicated and knowledgeable professional, each patient can achieve help navigating the world of medical cannabis and can ensure that they receive the proper medical cannabis protocol for their unique situation and symptoms.


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