Cannabis for Seasonal Affective Disorder: Can It Help?
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Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
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When winter’s long, dark days set in, many people experience “the winter blues,” or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This mood disorder is most common in regions that experience a significant drop in daylight hours. Some individuals use cannabis to help manage their symptoms of SAD, such as fatigue, intense feelings of hopelessness, or social withdrawal.
However, research exploring medical cannabis use for seasonal affective disorder is scarce. No studies have specifically examined seasonal depression and medical cannabis use to date. With that said, some studies show that cannabis use is associated with lower self-reported depression. These findings imply that cannabis may help those with SAD.
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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, is a specific type of depression that arises from seasonal changes. SAD is linked to shorter days and tends to appear during late fall, lingering until the early spring. Approximately 5% of the U.S. population experiences SAD for up to 40% of the year. Vitamin D deficiency due to limited sun exposure may also play a significant role in the disorder.
The most common symptoms of SAD include:
- Feeling sad
- Having a low mood
- Losing interest in everyday activities
- Low energy
- Sleeping too much
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Social withdrawal
- Intense hopelessness
These symptoms can be debilitating and seriously impact an individual’s everyday life and well-being. Although these symptoms generally improve independently from mid-spring onwards, many individuals with SAD benefit from treatment. Standard treatment options include light therapy, antidepressant medications such as SSRIs, talk therapy, or a combination. Following a healthy diet, exercising, and going outside during the day to get as much fresh air and sunlight as possible is also beneficial.
Is Seasonal Depression a Qualifying Condition for Medical Marijuana?
As mentioned above, seasonal affective disorder represents a variant of depression. While no state specifically identifies seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder as a qualifying disorder for medical marijuana, some states, like Alabama, allow cannabis to be prescribed for depression.
Additionally, several states have clauses that permit physicians to prescribe medical cannabis to treat debilitating conditions they deem appropriate or in instances where all other treatment avenues have been exhausted.
At the time of writing, these states included:
Other states sometimes allow patients to petition the state’s medical board to include a disorder or illness. It’s worth noting, however, that many of the states listed above allow recreational cannabis use. In cases where a physician may reject the prescription of cannabis for seasonal affective disorder, the individual would still be able to source it from a recreational dispensary or online.
Potential Benefits and Risks of Using Cannabis For SAD
Currently, there’s no research specifically investigating the effects of cannabis on seasonal depression. In recent years, however, a wealth of clinical studies have been published exploring the impact of cannabis on mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
Seasonal affective disorder and depression share many of the same symptoms. So, the studies cited below are a logical starting point for determining whether cannabis might be helpful or harmful in treating SAD.
Approximately 34% of cannabis users in the United States turn to cannabis to help manage depression and mood disorders, making it the third most popular reason for medical use. Anecdotal reports tell us that people use marijuana during winter to manage depressive symptoms such as low mood, insomnia, anxiety, a loss of interest in everyday or social activities, and tiredness or lack of energy.
In one study, people who used cannabis occasionally or even daily were more upbeat and had lower levels of depression than those who had never tried it. At least seven studies have shown clear evidence of improved depressed mood due to cannabis.
Another study investigating data from a medical cannabis app found that 89.3% of users noticed reduced depressive symptoms after using cannabis. The study also found that high-CBD strains yielded better results than high-THC strains. They also stated that the repeated use of cannabis did not appear to lead to any longer-term reductions in these symptoms.
Experts also caution that most evidence supporting the idea of cannabis as an antidepressant is anecdotal and relies on case- or cross-sectional studies. In other words, much larger, more robust clinical studies are needed to understand how cannabis might function as an effective antidepressant.
Some researchers emphasize that cannabis use, particularly heavy use, may increase the risk of developing a long-term depressive disorder. Research also tells us that individuals with cannabis use disorder — the inability to stop using cannabis despite it causing health or social problems — are significantly more likely to suffer from depression or another mental health disorder.
Cannabis is both a depressant and a stimulant. Factors such as dosage, cannabinoid and terpene composition, tolerance, and metabolism can influence whether cannabis delivers depressing or stimulating effects.
Consuming large quantities of cannabis with high concentrations of THC can cause anxiety, paranoia, or even panic in some people. In a systematic review of studies evaluating CBD’s effects on THC-induced symptoms, only one identified a significant reduction in symptoms.
So, it’s best to dose “low and slow.” In other words, start with small amounts of high-CBD strains (or CBD oils) with little THC content before trying strains with more balanced ratios. Taking more is always possible, but you can never take less. Cautious cannabis consumption is vital to mitigate the possibility of adverse side effects.
Best Strains for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Anecdotal reports from cannabis consumers suggest that certain strains can positively impact SAD symptoms by helping to energize, uplift mood, relieve insomnia, and increase the desire to socialize. Some of the best strains to combat the winter blues include:
This beloved THC-dominant strain boasts a powerfully invigorating head and body buzz, thanks partly to invigorating fruity terpenes.
Cannatonic is a CBD-dominant strain that can promote relaxation while uplifting and focusing the mind. The high is short, mellow, and ideal for those who don’t enjoy high concentrations of THC or mind-bending psychoactive effects.
The strong presence of limonene in Lemon Haze delivers an uplifting, energizing aroma rendering this cannabis strain a favorite choice among individuals experiencing depressive symptoms or anxiety.
Cookies and Cream
Cookies and Cream delivers a happy, euphoric, and creative high. A little goes a long way, so dose mindfully to avoid adverse effects.
Cannabis consumers often turn to this sativa-dominant strain to work through depression. Users claim its effects encourage a refreshed outlook on life. Blue Dream is also often acknowledged as a strain that promotes fun social encounters.
The Bottom Line
Though research remains inconclusive on seasonal affective disorder and cannabis use, some case studies indicate that people are using cannabis to relieve symptoms of depression. Anecdotal accounts report that marijuana helps elevate their mood, enhance social interactions, and improve sleep during winter.
It’s important to note that in some cases, cannabis use may exacerbate depression. So, it’s vital to consume marijuana mindfully and observe how different doses and strains affect you personally. We recommend dosing slow and low, especially concerning THC-rich varieties of cannabis. Chat with a cannabis coach or consultant for expert advice on strains and consumption methods that suit your personal constitution and symptoms.
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