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Can Marijuana Help Manage Depression?

By on March 29, 2013

Summary (click to view)

  • Marijuana users are more often diagnosed with depression than non-users
  • Experts say that marijuana use does not cause depression, but share common underlying factors
  • Studies show that marijuana and THC have antidepressant effects
  • Studies also show that cannabinoids (THC and CBD) can increase the growth of new brain cells, similar to antidepressants
  • More than 1 in 5 medical marijuana patients in the UK use marijuana to treat depression
  • Some studies suggest that THC’s antidepressant effects may be reversed at higher doses
  • Depression can affect anyone and is sometimes hard to diagnosis. Image source – A link between marijuana use and depression is often suggested, as studies seem to show that a significant portion of marijuana users also suffer from depression.

    Even still, experts believe that depression is not directly caused by marijuana use, but rather happens to share a common set of underlying genetic and environmental factors that predispose individuals to both depression and marijuana use.

    Moreover, a growing body of research suggests that marijuana may be beneficial in the treatment of depression. This has been confirmed by patients themselves, as a survey conducted in 2005 found that 22% of medical marijuana patients in the UK indicated using marijuana for depression.

    What is Depression?

    Depression (also known as major depression and major depressive disorder) is characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities. Depression is just one of many mood disorders that affect the general population, yet commonly go unnoticed. Patients who suffer from depression are believed to have shorter life expectancies than those who don’t and up to 15% of depressed individuals will ultimately commit suicide.

    Depression is thought to be caused by low levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Typical treatments for this disorder include antidepressant medications that act to increase levels of neurotransmitters as well as professional counseling. While antidepressants can be effective for patients who suffer from severe forms of depression, they seem to have little to no effect on patients with mild or moderate depression.

    How Can Marijuana Help?

    Besides the self-reports of patients, scientific evidence also points to the endocannabinoid system as having a therapeutic role in depression.

    For example, studies conducted on rodents have linked suppression of endocannabinoid activity to symptoms of major depression, while other studies have found increased endocannabinoid activity to have antidepressant-like effects. But despite confirming that activation of the endocannabinoid system can improve symptoms of depression, studies have shown that THC can have both depressant and antidepressant-like effects, depending on the dosage.

    Specifically, a study published in 2007 found that low doses of a synthetic form of THC (WIN 55,212-2) raised serotonin levels and produced strong antidepressant-like effects in rats, whereas high doses reversed the effects and worsened depression. However, WIN 55,212-2 is approximately 20 times more potent than THC found in marijuana.

    Even still, THC has been found (under certain conditions) to exert antidepressant-like effects in patients suffering from pain associated with cancer and multiple sclerosis as well as improve mood and general well-being in healthy test subjects.

    Interestingly, THC has also been shown to increase neurogenesis – the growth of new brain cells – much like traditional anti-depressant medications do. Stress and depression are known to decrease neurogenesis, which can also be a side-effect of using alcohol, nicotine, opiates and cocaine.

    What This Means For Your Health

    Confirmation of marijuana’s potential for treating depression comes from both patient reports and scientific studies. On the other hand, evidence of THC’s seemingly opposite effects on depression are concerning and provide a good argument for choosing strains of medical marijuana that contain lower concentrations of THC.

    It’s also important to note that most of the scientific evidence concerning marijuana and depression comes from preclinical studies, meaning that human testing has been very limited. While medical marijuana has not been tested in human subjects directly for the treatment of clinical depression, evidence from aforementioned studies conducted on cancer and MS patients certainly seems to support the use of medical marijuana and other marijuana-based treatments for symptoms of depression.