Depression, or major depressive disorder, is the leading cause of disability in the U.S., affecting approximately 8.1 percent of adults over age 20 each year. While it affects both men and women, it is much more prevalent in women. Those who suffer from depression look for treatments or ways to help reduce depressive episodes and, with the legalization of marijuana in many states, many are learning that it may help. But can marijuana really help with depression?  Can it be the cause of depression? As marijuana research begins to expand, we are learning much more about the benefits it offers for many different medical conditions, including depression.

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Marijuana Benefits for Depression

Research on depression and marijuana is still in its early stages. Currently, there are no randomized controlled trials that show sustained benefits of cannabis use in the treatment of depression. However, there are studies, including animal studies, that show positive results.  Your body naturally produces endocannabinoids, molecules similar to cannabis. These endocannabinoids are spread throughout the body and play a role in regulating:

  • Pain
  • Memory
  • Mood
  • Appetite
  • Metabolism
  • Stress regulation
  • Sleep
  • Immune system function
  • Reproductive function.

When the endocannabinoid system is altered, these functions can also be altered.  A 2016 medical review looked at the endocannabinoid system as it relates to pain and depression. It was discovered that cannabis altered the endocannabinoid system function in patients with depression and chronic pain. Currently, several synthetic cannabinomimetic drugs to treat both pain and depression are being developed. 

How Marijuana Affects the Brain

The same 2016 medical review finds that the brain’s amygdala might respond to THC mediated pain relief.  Considering that the amygdala is involved in emotional memory, this will become an important area of active research, particularly where pain symptoms may have a psychological and/or emotional component (i.e. depression).

Marijuana, or cannabis, works to stimulate the endocannabinoid system and restore function. A 2013 study looked at the endocannabinoid system and how it relates to emotional processing. During their study, they administered THC to healthy subjects and measured emotional processing in the brain through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They assessed performance and brain activity related to emotional processing with negative and positive content after administration of THC as well as a placebo. After receiving THC, performance accuracy decreased with negative stimuli but increased for positive, thus reducing negative emotional processing. 

Another study from the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions looks at chronic stress and depression, focusing on endocannabinoids in animals. This animal study showed that cannabis use might be useful in reducing depression associated with chronic stress. Though, we must be careful when trying to extrapolate animal studies to humans.

The Connection Between Marijuana and Depression

When it comes to marijuana and depression, there seem to be some benefits, but there are also some risks. While it has been noted that marijuana MAY cause depression, there is no evidence that it directly causes depression. The more likely case is that the same genetic, environmental, or other contributing factors that trigger the depression also contribute to marijuana use, as it can relieve symptoms.

While there is a connection between marijuana use and depression, there is no evidence of causality between the two. When it comes to your depression and the idea of using marijuana to treat the symptoms, it is best to discuss this with your medical care provider. Do not stop taking any current medical treatment before talking it over with your doctor as this can contribute to withdrawal symptoms and other medical concerns.  If you do experiment with marijuana to help treat symptoms, consider trying a variety of different strains to see which ones work best for you.

Teen Marijuana Use Could Increase Risk of Depression

Researchers from McGill University and the University of Oxford looked at existing evidence to determine if there was a connection between teen marijuana use and early adulthood depression. They discovered that teens using marijuana experienced an increased risk of depression and suicide in adulthood, but this is more the case in teens and adults genetically at risk of mental illness. In studies like this, it is important to note any genetic and environmental influences. 

What is Depression?

Depression, also known as major depressive disorder or clinical depression, is a very common mood disorder. It affects how a person feels, thinks, and handles daily activities such as work, sleep, and even eating.

Forms of Depression

Depression comes in many different forms, including:

  • Postpartum Depression – This occurs in women during pregnancy or after giving birth. Feelings of extreme sadness, exhaustion, and anxiety make it difficult for these new moms to cope with caring for themselves and their young infants.
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder – This diagnosis occurs when depression lasts for over two years. Some can experience episodes of major depression followed by less severe symptoms, but the depression never really goes away.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder – This form of depression occurs during the winter months when the exposure to natural sunlight is reduced. SAD often leads to social withdrawal, increased sleep, and weight gain.
  • Psychotic Depression – This form occurs when severe depression accompanies some form of psychosis, such as hallucinations or delusions.

Symptoms of Depression

Those suffering from depression can experience a variety of symptoms. Some of these include: 

  • A persistent sad or empty mood
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory impairments
  • Sleep disorders
  • Appetite or weight changes
  • Suicidal thoughts.

Current Treatments for Depression

Traditional treatments for depression focus on psychotherapy and medications. Antidepressant medications work to improve the biochemical functioning of the brain. There are many different medications available, but not all work for everyone. It becomes a guessing game trying to find the medication that works best treating the symptoms while producing minimal side effects. In addition, it can take 2 to 4 weeks before antidepressants begin to work. And once you start taking medication, you must continue unless otherwise advised by your doctor, as they can cause severe withdrawal symptoms.

This information is presented for informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition.  Please always consult your own doctor.