We all know someone who has been depressed, or perhaps you have experienced depression yourself. Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Annually it affects around 7% of the population. According to research by the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is caused by a combination of biological, genetic, environmental and psychological factors. Depression is most common in young adults between ages 18 to 25, but depression does not discriminate, as anyone can experience depression during their life. Depression is generally thought of as excessive sadness but can also include feelings of hopelessness or pessimism, irritability, feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, guilt and a loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities. Depression symptoms show themselves in many different ways. Some people will only experience a few symptoms, while others will experience many. This can make it hard to recognize when a friend or loved one is suffering. Due to this, like its counterpart, anxiety, healing depression can be a difficult thing to do and often requires a multi-faceted approach to be successful. In recent years, we have seen a large increase in the number of people using cannabis to combat their symptoms of depression. Although we have seen this increase, research indicates that cannabis use may actually increase the likelihood of depressive behavior in users. Other research and anecdotal evidence show the opposite. More research is needed to determine whether or not cannabis works for this purpose. In this article, we will examine the available research and determine whether or not cannabis can be an effective tool for combatting symptoms of depression.
In last month’s article Cannabis and Anxiety we discussed how cannabis is not going to “cure” your anxiety. This is the case for depression as well. Depression is complex and each case is as unique as the individual that is experiencing it. Mindful practices like yoga, meditation and exercise are very helpful in combating depression, but sometimes depression can keep you from participating in these activities. Seeking the help of a mental health professional to help guide you on your healing journey is important. Depression left unchecked can have severe consequences like self-isolation, loss of interest in life and in more dire cases, self-harm and suicide. If you or a person you know is depressed, it is important to seek the help needed to heal.
The relationship between cannabis and depression is still not understood, but evidence suggests that cannabis is best used medically for depression when regimented with proper dosing so that the consumer doesn’t develop a tolerance to cannabis medicine. “When considering marijuana for the treatment of depressive disorders, it should be remembered that regular marijuana use would result in tolerance to medical effects, thus increasing the risk of depression and fostering cannabis dependence” (Stoner, Susan A.). This methodology for using cannabis is different than the traditional “use as needed” tactics for pain, insomnia, and anxiety.
Cannabis appears to regulate mood through its interaction with the endocannabinoid system. As mentioned in The Endocannabinoid System and You, the endocannabinoid system is controlled by endocannabinoids, cannabinoids that are created in the human brain. “Endocannabinoids appear to modulate highly interactive stress and reward networks, consisting of the ECS, dopamine system, and hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. These networks establish a balance between distress and well-being” (Stoner, Susan A.). When the endocannabinoid system is stimulated with the correct dose of cannabinoids, there appears to be an anti-depressive effect in some consumers. This effect can quickly change if the user is given more, less or becomes tolerant overtime to the dose that is being administered. With this understanding, it is important to implement proper, regimented dosing when using cannabis to combat depression.
Although there is research to support cannabis having anti-depressant effects in some users, research indicates that heavy cannabis use might actually be linked to depression. In a 2003 study conducted by the Society for the Study of Addiction found that “Heavy cannabis use and depression are associated and evidence from longitudinal studies suggests that heavy cannabis use may increase depressive symptoms among some users” (Degenhardt, Louisa, et al.). After further review of the research, it is hard to determine a clear causal relationship between cannabis and depression, but it seems as though cannabis can exacerbate depression symptoms in some users. Symptoms of lethargy, apathy, lack of motivation and laziness that are all associated with depression can increase with cannabis consumption. Increasing these behaviors in people suffering from depression can be problematic as many treatments for depression focus on curbing these symptoms. If you are prone to these side effects when consuming cannabis, using cannabis to alleviate depression might not be the best approach.
Further research published in the BMJ Medical Journal also indicates that cannabis use in adolescence greatly increases the likelihood of developing depression in early adulthood, especially in women. A study done in Australia followed a group of 1601 students ages 14 – 15 and tracked their health for 7 years. Scientists found “by adulthood, 7% were daily consumers. Young women who consume daily were five times more likely to develop depression and anxiety than their non-consuming peers. Young women who use cannabis weekly as teenagers showed a twofold increase in developing depression and anxiety and daily users, a fourfold increase” (Patton, George C, et al.). A 2014 analysis of studies done surrounding cannabis and depression echoed these results. “Using data from over 76,000 individuals and including only studies that had controlled for baseline levels of depression, results indicated that cannabis use was associated with a modest increased risk for developing depressive disorders and that heavy cannabis use was associated with a stronger, but still moderate, increased risk for developing depression (Stoner, Susan A.). It is clear that cannabis use and depression are related, but establishing exactly why we are seeing these research trends is yet to be seen. As we move forward into the proliferation of legal cannabis, hopefully, we will see more research being done to establish this causal relationship.
Is cannabis an effective medicine for depression? After reviewing the available research it is hard to tell. Anecdotally, many people report finding relief from using cannabis to combat their depressive symptoms and some scientific research shows that cannabis may have a positive effect on alleviating depression. Other research indicates the opposite. It is clear that we are at a point now where more research is needed to determine whether or not cannabis can be effective in treating depression. If you are currently using cannabis to help with your depressive symptoms and it is working for you, keep doing what works. Healing with cannabis is experimental and what works for you may not work for another person. If you are looking to try out cannabis for depression, please be careful. Research indicates that cannabis may hinder your progress, or make it more likely for you to become more depressed. Talk with your doctor about your strategy and what you can do to monitor your progress. Also, keep in mind you may find more relief with a proper dosing regimen. As discussed above, cannabis appears to work best for depression when given in exact doses over a specific period of time. A higher or lower dose may not create the same effect thus hindering you from feeling your best.
Degenhardt, Louisa, et al. “Exploring the Association between Cannabis Use and Depression.” Addiction, vol. 98, no. 11, 2003, pp. 1493–1504., doi:10.1046/j.1360-0443.2003.00437.x.
Patton, George C, et al. “Cannabis Use and Mental Health in Young People: Cohort Study.” The BMJ, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, 23 Nov. 2002, www.bmj.com/content/325/7374/1195.1.full.
Stoner, Susan A. “Effects of Marijuana on Mental Health: Depression.” Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute , 2017, adai.uw.edu/pubs/pdf/2017mjdepression.pdf.