Cannabis has been used to treat depression since the 17th century. Nonetheless, when it comes mood disorders, cannabis can be a tricky subject. Opponents argue it can cause or exacerbate the disorder, while advocates, some referencing recent research, insist marijuana can help those suffering from depression.
Research from the University of Buffalo has recently suggested activating the body’s endocannabinoid system may be helpful in the treatment of depression caused by chronic stress. It has already been determined that cannabinoids – the compounds in cannabis – bind to the same receptors in the body as do the endocannabinoids created by the body.
The animal studies undertaken shows that chronic stress apparently reduces the production of endocannabinoids which are, among other things, useful in reducing pain and anxiety ,and increasing well-being (which explains why cannabis also does this). Using cannabis to restore proper (endo)cannabinoid levels in the brain may produces these results and therefore alleviate depression.1
An analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010 also considered cannabis and depression, and the results offered an explanation for the disagreement over whether marijuana causes or alleviates the disorder. The study began by stating that pharmaceutical antidepressants are only helpful to patients with severe depression.
This led to research into the possibility that marijuana may be used to treat those exhibiting mild or moderate symptoms of depression. Indeed, a 2007 study found that at low levels, a synthetic form of THC (the most prevalent, psychoactive cannabinoid) could act as an antidepressant.2
THC’s specific effect on depression is believed to be linked to serotonin (a neurotransmitter) levels, the depletion of which has been identified as a possible cause of depression: those with low levels of serotonin levels are more likely to suffer from the disorder. Both THC and prescription antidepressants raise serotonin levels.
Significantly, however, at higher doses THC actually begins to actively decrease serotonin levels, which may exacerbate symptoms. This polar opposite reaction is likely the reason cannabis seems to be linked to causing depression as often as preventing it.
There are definite benefits to avoiding antidepressants, especially if they are expected to fail. The drugs commonly prescribed can cause serious side effects, as well as serious withdrawal. Numerous studies involving marijuana and various conditions have shown that marijuana causes only mild and transient side effects, and while it can be habit-forming, does not cause a physical withdrawal. 3
There is some anecdotal evidence that marijuana may be used to alleviate depression in patients battling other diseases, for which feelings of depression are a symptom of that condition. Those with cancer, multiple sclerosis and other serious illnesses have found their “mood, motivation and outlook are significantly improved” from cannabis use.3
A study conducted in 2013 found that “THC reduces the negative bias in emotional processing,” which in itself could help some mild depressive symptoms4. Essentially, marijuana’s ability to deliver a happier outlook on life, and minimize stress, could be enough to alleviate depression for individuals in which the condition is relatively mild.
Despite research supporting marijuana as treatment, the possibility that cannabis will exacerbate depression symptoms with overuse is also a cause for caution. Ideally, any patients with depression who plan to try cannabis as treatment should be very conscious of dosage, and consult with a health professional prior to beginning treatment.