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Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
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Depression is a common mental health disorder that is usually treated with therapy and antidepressants. However, for many, therapy can be costly, and antidepressants come with some less-than-ideal side effects. This has led some people to turn to marijuana to treat their depression symptoms.
We need more research to definitively state whether cannabis can treat depression, but some studies suggest that marijuana may help alleviate depression symptoms, including low mood, insomnia, stress, and anxiety. The caveat, however, is that the dose matters, and high doses of THC may actually aggravate depressive symptoms.
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What Is Depression?
Depression, or major depressive disorder, is a mental health disorder characterized by feelings of sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness that interfere with daily activities. It can also include physical symptoms such as fatigue, changes in appetite or weight, difficulty concentrating, and insomnia. Symptoms must linger for at least two weeks and mark a significant change in the patient’s behaviors to warrant a depression diagnosis.
Causes and Symptoms of Depression
There are various risk factors and causes of depression, including hereditary tendencies, hormonal imbalances, environmental stressors, medication side effects, and medical conditions. For many, the exact cause of depression is a combination of lifestyle and biological factors.
Depression symptoms exist on a broad spectrum, manifesting in mild to severe ways. Common symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent low moods
- Feeling helpless or hopeless
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in sleep patterns (insomnia)
- Suicidal thoughts
- Changes in appetite/weight gain or loss
Individuals also commonly experience concurrent conditions such as anxiety or sleeping disorders.
Treatment for Clinical Depression
Standard treatments for depression include combining cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medications, most often antidepressants like fluoxetine (Prozac) and escitalopram (Lexapro). Recently, alternative practitioners have been increasingly interested in the potential of cannabis to help patients manage their depression symptoms.
Is Depression a Qualifying Condition for Medical Marijuana?
Most states consider major depression a qualifying condition for medical cannabis or give mental health practitioners autonomy to refer patients as they see fit. For example, in New York, medical cannabis rule updates now place eligible conditions in the hands of qualifying medical providers. However, some states fail to mention this widespread mental health diagnosis by name.
California doesn’t specifically list depression as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana cards. But the law does state that if a chronic medical condition reduces a person’s quality of life, it qualifies for medicinal marijuana use.
In Michigan, depression is also not listed as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis use. However, the state recognizes illnesses, such as PTSD, Crohn’s disease, chronic pain, and autism — chronic illnesses where depression occurs concurrently at higher rates than in the general public.
Additionally, some states restrict medical marijuana access, regardless of whether patients qualify for treatment. For example, some medical cannabis programs limit THC levels, preventing patients from accessing high-dose products. Ultimately, whether an individual qualifies for medical marijuana depends on their state and the severity of their condition.
Benefits of Using Cannabis for Depression
Medical marijuana users commonly report that cannabis helps them cope with emotional distress and manage mental health more efficiently. There are several other reported benefits worth researching further.
Improves Mood and Relaxation
Recent studies have linked using marijuana and depression to improvements in mood and relaxation. Feeling calmer and happier can help reduce symptoms of depression, such as rumination (constantly thinking negative thoughts) and irritability.
Improves Sleep Quality
Cannabis users report more sound sleep and better restfulness. More shut-eye can help relieve stress and improve mental clarity, decreasing feelings of depression. The other benefit is a more robust immune system, reducing the chances of aches, pain, and getting ill.
Marijuana’s neural mechanisms may enhance concentration, potentially allowing people with depression to focus more easily on daily tasks and activities that require cognitive effort. For example, a case report found that high-CBD strains helped ADHD patients improve attention and reduce depression.
Reduces Anxiety Levels
Cannabis use may ease anxiety, a common symptom associated with depression. A study by the University of Washington called “Effects of Marijuana on Mental Health: Anxiety Disorders” indicated that low doses of pure THC can reduce anxiety while higher doses may increase them. Conversely, all amounts of pure CBD decrease anxiety. Cannabis-induced stress reduction can help people feel more at ease and better cope with depression.
Potential Risks and Side Effects
Marijuana undoubtedly helps people manage depression symptoms. But cannabis isn’t a cure-all. It doesn’t work for everyone and can even exacerbate specific symptoms.
For example, marijuana can worsen anxiety disorders when high doses of THC are used. It can also be habit-forming if used regularly and spur psychosis in people with a history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — although CBD may be useful for such conditions.
Research has found that cannabis use can increase anxiety symptoms among certain people with depression. Heavy users and those who consume potent THC doses are at a much higher risk for marijuana-induced anxiety than infrequent, low-dose patients.
Marijuana use can become habit-forming if used regularly, leading to cannabis dependence or cannabis use disorder (CUD) that can lead to negative consequences, such as:
- Poor performance at school or work
- Relationship problems
- Financial difficulties
These risks are more significant in people with depression because they can complicate existing issues and worsen depression symptoms. Signs of cannabis misuse include:
- Difficulty controlling the amount of marijuana used
- Withdrawal symptoms when not using marijuana
- Loss of interest in other activities
- Strong cravings for marijuana
Regular cannabis users may also develop a tolerance to THC. However, this isn’t necessarily an indicator of misuse or addiction. Many medical marijuana patients develop tolerance and still use the plant responsibly.
Those with some types of pre-existing mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder, may experience marijuana-induced psychosis. Examples include:
- Schizoaffective disorder
- Paranoid personality disorder
- Delusional disorder
- Bipolar disorder with psychotic features
- Substance-induced psychosis
Although THC use may increase the risk of psychosis in some people, CBD may decrease psychotic symptoms.
Best Strains for Depression
Patients use various marijuana strains with different effects and benefits for depression. Popular options include Grandaddy Purple, Jack Herer, and Sour Diesel.
These are just a few strains that may help ease depression symptoms. Patients should research different varieties, experiment with dosages and product types, and talk to a medical professional before selecting a strain for treatment.
Granddaddy Purple (GDP) is known for easing anxiety, diminishing chronic stress levels, and lifting spirits. Common terpenes in GDP include myrcene, pinene, and linalool, all of which contribute to its relaxing effects.
Jack Herer fans often report an invigorating, uplifting experience that elicits a sense of euphoria and better concentration. Jack Herer is rich in pinene and terpinolene, which can contribute to its relaxing-yet-uplifting effects.
Patients may find the Sour Diesel strain helpful in improving their outlook and tackling fatigue. Sour Diesel contains the uplifting terpene, limonene, which is why it may be an ideal chemovar for those with depression.
The Bottom Line
Research into the use of cannabis for depression shows that marijuana presents potential risks and benefits that vary from person to person. With the right strain (also referred to as a cultivar or chemovar) and dosage, cannabis may be an effective treatment that improves mood, concentration, motivation, and sleep quality.
Conversely, some research has found that cannabis can worsen anxiety, lead to dependence, and induce psychosis in at-risk populations. As such, it is wise to speak with a healthcare provider prior to using cannabis to treat your depression symptoms. If you live in a state with a medical marijuana program, you can make a virtual appointment with one of Leafwell’s doctors to discuss whether your condition qualifies for a medical marijuana card.
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