If you’ve been feeling sadness you can’t shake or lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed, you may be suffering from depression — and you’re not alone. Depression affects some 350 millionTrusted Source people across the globe. This common mood disorder is the leading causeTrusted Source of disability worldwide. Yet many people who have depression do not get the help they need
Some research suggests that marijuana smokers are diagnosed with depression more often than nonsmokers are — particularly regular or heavy marijuana users. However, it doesn’t appear that marijuana directly causes depression.
There is more to depression than what we may see on the surface. In fact, depression is a complex mood disorder that has a negative influence on how we work, sleep, eat, or have fun. It’s because depression is expressed in the inability to feel happiness and pleasure. Moreover, depression comes in several forms:
- It’s a period of at least two years of mild depression with some periods of improvement.
- Bipolar disorder (manic depression). This form of depression manifests in rapid mood changes, often followed by impulsive behavior, insomnia, quick speech, and hyperactivity.
- Major depression. It’s associated with permanent inability to enjoy life for over half a year.
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Some people suffer from depression triggered by seasonal changes, which is the main indicator that one may suffer from SAD.
According to the World Health Organization, there is approximately 350 million people of all ages suffering from depression, which makes it the major cause of disability around the world.
What are the causes of depression? The list of factors is long, but the most common causes include:
- Physical/sexual/emotional abuse
- Social conflicts
- Loss (the death of a family member or friend)
- Major life events (moving, divorce)
- Severe illnesses
- Chronic stress (one of the leading causes of depression)
- Substance abuse
What are the signs of depression?
Depression can be debilitating depending on the severity of the condition. There are a number of types and subcategories of depression. There are major depressive disorders. People also experience dysphonia, which is chronic low mood. There can be situational stressors which can lead to a depressive disorder, for example, postnatal depression.
However, all of these conditions have similar features. The main features for depression include pervasive low mood and anhedonia, which is the lack of ability to enjoy previously pleasurable or enjoyable experiences.
Depression can also cause changes in sleep. This can present as difficulty getting to sleep or as hyper-somnolence, wanting to sleep all of the time. A change in appetite can also be a symptom of depression. Some individuals put on weight and other people will have no appetite whatsoever.
Finally, changes in self worth including feelings of worthlessness and guilt or thoughts of death and dying or increased suicidal ideation. All of these feelings can lead to fatigue and mental and physical slowing, so that everything becomes an effort in someone’s life as well.
When should individuals seek a doctor’s help for depression?
Sad days and depression are a normal part of life. Healthy people go through periods of low mood, low energy and sadness. When these symptoms become chronic or you begin to feel that everything is an effort it’s time to see a doctor. Negative feelings shouldn’t have a major impact on your life.
So, if you feel that your negative thoughts, moods or feelings are consistently impacting your quality of life or relationships, it’s important to seek help.
How is depression diagnosed?
Depression is a clinical diagnosis. This means that there are no blood tests or other physical tests you can do to diagnose depression. There are also lots of overlaps with anxiety disorders.
In order to diagnose depression, doctors use questions and tools from the DSM-5, which is a manual for mental health disorders. A diagnosis of depression means that it needs to be stand alone; so it’s not related to other conditions like thyroid dysfunction or endocrine disorders. Finally, the feelings need to cause dysfunction in the individual’s life.
The Symptoms of depression
Although each person is somewhat unique, hopelessness and lethargy are good indicators that you may suffer from depression. They’re accompanied by the feeling of low self-worth, shame, guilt, or the inability to feel joy.
Most of the time, these symptoms lead to short tempers and irritability, with a serious dose of reckless behavior, sleep issues, and the inability to make decisions or even remember things. Note that the symptoms of depression don’t just fade away. On the contrary, they become worse and more intense over time.
At its most intense stage, depression may lead to suicidal thoughts. Without immediate help, thoughts may become actions sooner than one would expect. Moreover, people who suffer from depression are not keen on speaking out about their issues. Instead, they master the art of pretending, which is why you often hear statements like “I didn’t know he suffered from depression.” Or, “She seemed to be completely fine, at least that’s what she told me”.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2014 alone, CDCP reported over 42,000 suicides, which equals one death every 15 minutes.
What are the benefits of medical marijuana?
- Marijuana can be used as a tool for pain management.
- Medicinal marijuana may relieve symptoms of anxiety.
- It’s also recognized as a potential treatment for nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy.
A 2014 study published by the Hawaii Journal of Medicine & Public Health highlighted pain management as a potential benefit of medical marijuana. Participants in the study reported a 64 percent decrease in pain while using marijuana. Many also experienced a decrease in anxiety and better sleep while using the drug.
A 2012 study explored cannabis as a means of controlling spasticity in people with multiple sclerosis. On average, participants had about 30 percent less spasticity while using this treatment.
Other potential benefits include relief from:
- involuntary movements associated with movement disorders
- nausea, particularly from chemotherapy
- sleep disorders
- HIV-related weight loss
Research is ongoing in these areas to determine the short- and long-term effects of use.
Research on marijuana and depression
The evaluation of medical marijuana for depression is still in its early stages. Right now, researchers share that possible benefits include the restoration of “normal” endocannabinoid function and mood stabilization.
Scientists at the University at Buffalo have begun looking into medicinal marijuana as a possible treatment for depression caused by chronic stress. The school’s Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) has been focusing specifically on brain chemicals called endocannabinoids.
These are naturally produced chemical compounds. They play a role in motor control, cognition, emotions, and behavior. They also have a chemical makeup similar to that of cannabis.
The scientists have performed their studies on animals and not humans. Yet they have discovered that chronic stress may suppress the brain’s production of endocannabinoids. They found that this can lead to depression-like behavior.
Introducing cannabis into the system may help restore normal levels and function. This may ease symptoms of depression.
More studies are needed to assess the true benefits and disadvantages of marijuana as a potential therapy for people with depression.
Risks and warnings
- Side effects may vary depending on the method of consumption.
- Views are mixed on whether marijuana can lead to depression or treat depression.
- Marijuana use may trigger schizophrenia or psychosis in people at higher risk of these conditions. However, research isn’t conclusive.
In a group surveyed about marijuana usage for chronic pain, 71 percent didn’t report any significant side effects. Six percent reported a cough or throat irritation.
There isn’t any clear evidence to suggest that marijuana causes depression. However, there may be a link between the two. Some researchTrusted Source suggests regular or heavy users of the drug are diagnosed with depression more often than non-smokers.
Marijuana has also been linked with other mental health conditions. If you’re at a high risk of psychosis, it’s important to know that marijuana may trigger schizophrenia or psychosis. Psychosis is a serious mental disorder characterized by a detachment from reality. Symptoms can include hallucinations and delusions.
The potential side effects of marijuana use may depend on the way you take it. Medical marijuana can be taken as a spray, pill, or patches. Research is ongoing with traditional recreational methods, such as smoking or vaporizing.
The researchers at University at Buffalo are currently trying to figure out if a certain extract, called cannabidiol, could give the mood-boosting benefits without leading to drug dependency.
How Does Marijuana Help Depression?
Research has shown that depressive disorders are often expressed through altered behavior in the monoamine system, which is the neural network responsible for the regulation of emotion, arousal, and certain types of memory. Two of the most significant compounds transmitted through the monoamine system are serotonin and dopamine. Inhibited transmission and decreased levels of serotonin and dopamine have been linked to depressive disorders (although it is important to stress that evidence does not support the hypothesis that depression is caused by an “imbalance” of these chemicals).
This understanding provides clues to the ways in which marijuana may have an effect on depressive conditions. Studies have shown that THC can influence the production and release of dopamine, but this relationship has been described as “complex” and dose-dependent. At specific doses, THC has been shown to increase dopamine uptake, but also reduce dopamine uptake as THC content is increased.
The effects of THC on dopamine production also appear to change over time. The authors of a study titled “The Effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol on the Dopamine System” concluded:
Acute THC causes increased dopamine release and neuron activity, whilst long-term use is associated with blunting of the dopamine system.
To clarify that statement, medical terminology describes an “acute condition” as something with a sudden onset, while chronic conditions are ongoing. These findings fall in line with the conclusions cited in the Washington State study referenced earlier, which suggests that long-term use of marijuana to treat depression may reduce or eliminate dopamine-boosting effects, and possibly lead to an increase in depressive symptoms over time.
In a 2007 study conducted at McGill University, certain cannabinoids found in marijuana have been show to boost serotonin levels and produce antidepressant effects in animals. This study revealed an inverse relationship between serotonin release and THC content.
Low doses had a potent anti-depressant effect, but when we increased the dose, the serotonin in the rats’ brains actually dropped below the level of those in the control group.
So we actually demonstrated a double effect: At low doses it increases serotonin, but at higher doses the effect is devastating, completely reversed.
Similar conclusions come from a study of human subjects comparing the effects of smoked marijuana and a synthetic cannabinoid – indicating that both influenced the uptake of serotonin, but not in a purely linear fashion. Serotonin receptivity increased with lower-dose administrations of THC, while higher concentrations of THC content produced a serotonin-inhibiting effect.
Another interesting finding from the same study was that long-term marijuana users appeared to exhibit an adaptation that resulted in increased serotonin uptake for a given concentration of THC.
Most current studies on the relationship between marijuana and depression rely on self-reported data or are based on research models that address a limited scope of variables. One such variable is the individual’s predisposition to depression. Are marijuana users more likely to develop depression or are people prone to depression more likely to use marijuana to relieve symptoms? And, as described in the previous section of this article, marijuana’s mood-altering effects on the body’s monoamine system vary based on the strength and dosage of THC, CBD, and other less-studied cannabinoids.
Another variable brought to light by a recent study from Western University in Ontario, Canada is that reactions to THC differ based on which area of the brain is affected. In a majority of the population, THC engages with the anterior regions of the brain, producing rewarding effects. However, in a smaller number of individuals, THC engages the posterior region, resulting in negative reactions. Until these and other variables are factored into future study, the question of a causal relationship between long-term marijuana use and depression may not have a definitive answer.
One of the few studies on the very long-term effects of marijuana on mood looked at subjects age 30 to 74 who reported smoking marijuana on at least 5,000 separate occasions, beginning in the 1960s or early 1970s. The study authors reported that subjects:
Continued to smoke heavily into middle adulthood because they felt that marijuana relieved unpleasant feeling states such as anxiety or depression.
Until additional research reveals new insights into the relationship between marijuana and depression, those considering the use of marijuana to treat this condition should weigh the evidence that is available and seek the advice and assistance of medical professionals qualified in the field of medical marijuana (such as CannaMD‘s board-certified doctors). And given what we know of marijuana’s dose and content-dependent effects on mood, it would also seem wise to obtain any marijuana-based products from a licensed dispensary that can provide products with a known THC and CBD content.