The Science Behind Medical Cannabis and Depression

Joe Evans
Joe Evans - Content Writer

Feb 08 2021 - 5 min read

It’s probably fair to say that 2020 was a year to forget for many, for a massive variety of reasons. There was a whole bunch of stuff to be stressed and anxious about last year, from the devastating social and economic impacts of COVID-19, to the uber-stressful American presidential election, to the months-long lockdowns that isolated us to our homes and away from our loved one. In fact, a recent study indicated that anxiety and isolation caused by COVID have made ⅓ of adults depressed. That’s on top of the more than 264 million people globally that suffer from some form of depression.

Download Guide To Depression and Medical Cannabis

In fact, did you know that depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide? With a problem that widespread, you would think there would be a massive variety of treatment options for an issue that impacts so many. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the case.

Even today, one of the main go-to treatments is to prescribe patients antidepressants – some of which may work, some of which may not. In-person or online therapy is also recommended. But even with the recent expansion of telehealth services amid the pandemic, like what Leafwell provides for patients to quickly and easily get a medical cannabis card of their own, caring for those suffering from depression is a difficult task. That’s why so many have looked to medical cannabis as a possible treatment option, especially for those who might want to avoid heavy, synthetic prescription drugs.

Telehealth Doctor Evaluation
Telehealth is now a common way to get certified for medical cannabis, especially since the COVID-19 outbreak.

But what exactly can medical cannabis do for someone with depression? What impact do the compounds in cannabis have on those suffering from depression’s mental health? How exactly can cannabis alleviate the impact of symptoms? How have the early studies shown that cannabis-based treatments stand up to traditional treatment options?

Thankfully, we here at Leafwell have a breakdown of all of those questions from above and more. Let’s get right into it, shall we?

Breaking Down Cannabis’s Compounds and Dosing Cannabis for Depression

While there are up to 150 naturally occurring cannabinoids (and counting) present in a medical cannabis product, the main two that most people know are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannbidiol (CBD). While research suggests that stimulation of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) generally reduces symptoms of depression, these two most-commonly discussed cannabinoids have both shown tremendous potential when it comes to easing the impacts of depression.

CBD, for example, has been shown to reduce some of the critical issues associated with depression-like anxiety. Studies have found that even small amounts of CBD (300 mg) can reduce levels of social anxiety when compared to a placebo. Larger doses (600 mg) produced even more profound effects.

CBD has even shown the potential to boost serotonin levels, a key indicator of and one of the main factors associated with depression. As long as you’re using full-spectrum, high-quality CBD products that are third-party tested to make sure it contains the levels of CBD it should, CBD has been shown to have a real impact when it comes to elevating symptoms of depression.

Serotonin - 2D skeletal structure and formula. C10H12N2O.
Skeletal formula of serotonin, C10H12N2O. Structure based on X-ray crystallographic determination from Acta Chem. Scand. (1978) 32a, 267–270. Structure originally drawn in ChemBioDraw Ultra 12.0 by Ben Mills. It was then manually retraced with Inkscape. Author: CYL. Public Domain Picture.

THC, on the other hand, has shown profound potential in reducing depression associated with chronic pain. Researchers have long seen links between those suffering from chronic pain and depression, and as we’ve covered here at Leafwell before, THC plays an important role in managing pain. One study found that cannabis reduces pain levels by near 64 percent, which is comparable (if not outright better) than synthetic opioids. Also compared against opioids, studies have shown the vast majority of those using cannabis didn’t report significant side effects.

And, of course, those big two should always be combined for the best effect thanks to the entourage effect, a chemical effect we’ve covered here at Leafwell before, it’s best to find a balanced product or strain if you’re looking to relieve depression symptoms.

When it comes to dosing cannabis, we tend to like to tell people to try and find what works best for themselves, as everyone has an individualized endocannabinoid system. With that being said, there are some patterns. For those who have anxiety alongside depression, a little but not too much THC can be useful. For those with depression and less anxiety, THC may be useful for mood elevation and insomnia, and they may be able to tolerate a little more of it. Some use the less psychoactive delta-8 THC in order to reduce the chances of an anxiety or panic attack.

Many people with depression and/or anxiety respond quite well to a balanced 1:1 THC:CBD profile, with some perhaps finding benefit in a little more THC or CBD, depending on time of day.

Look at the Other Cannabinoids and Terpenes as Well

Even though THC and CBD are the two most prominent cannabinoids, other compounds like cannabichromene (CBC) also have potent anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects. Terpenes like limonene and pinene can be uplifting, whereas myrcene and linalool can be relaxing. Cannabinol (CBN), meanwhile, could be a replacement for benzodiazepines like diazepam!

Having a wide range of terpenes and cannabinoids can also mitigate negative effects and help provide a more balanced experience. For anxiety and depression, where getting overly “wired” and/or overly low needs to be prevented, having a mix of cannabinoids and terpenes may be best.

The terpenes found in CBD and cannabis oil, and what they do.
The terpenes found in cannabis and full-spectrum CBD (cannabidiol) oil.

An Alternative to Standard Treatment?

It’s super important to note that while the early studies and results have shown that cannabis can have a real impact on those dealing with depression, that research is nowhere near conclusive enough to say anything for sure. Cannabis products can certainly “mellow out” someone dealing with depression and temporarily lessen their symptoms, but it’s too early for medical cannabis to exclusively be used for the treatment of any mental health issues definitively.

In fact, some research has shown that some mental health issues can actually be worsened or exaggerated by using cannabis (e.g. THC use and psychotic disorders). However, it must be said that there are many variables that can contribute to depression and other mental illnesses over a person’s lifetime, including suffering from other illnesses, socioeconomic status, individual lifestyle choices (diet, exercise etc.) and much more. Also, it must be remembered that regular intake of prescription drugs can also have negative long term impacts (especially addictive ones like sedatives), so singling out cannabis would not necessarily be objective.

And this is where medical cannabis can come into its own for dealing with depression: as a replacement for antidepressants and addictive sedatives. Cannabis can be a far safer alternative to such medications, as well as opioids and many others.

It’s vital that you speak with a licensed cannabis doctor, the same as the one’s available via a quick online consultation with Leafwell, about what’s best for you based on your particular diagnosis, the symptoms you’re trying to treat, and what strains or cannabis products you’re using.

While there has been some promising research about the benefits of cannabis, it’s far too early to say anything for sure. For now, we’ll have to wait for nationwide legalization to do some conclusive medical research on the impacts of cannabis on those dealing with depression, or look to hubs of medical cannabis research like Israel and hope for something promising.

One thing is clear, however. The potential of clean, green, natural medicine is undeniable for a laundry list of ailments and symptoms. Depression is one that’s certainly on the list for a lot of people.

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Written by
Joe Evans
Joe Evans

Joe Evans is a journalist, writer, editor and contributor for Leafwell. He has, to date, more than 5,000 articles published online under his byline on topics like cannabis, local and National news, politics, automotive news, sports, pop culture and even a cult.

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