Depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States. Yet, it is wildly misunderstood by the general population. Nearly 15 million people suffer from this condition in the U.S. alone. Patients face few effective options outside of pharmaceutical treatment. Fortunately, cannabis is a powerful natural alternative. This segment of our All In The Mind series gives you the scoop on how cannabis treats depression.
What is depression?
Everyone feels a little sad or blue once in a while. That is not depression. Clinical depression is a very serious mood disorder that can disrupt your daily life. Unlike its sibling bipolar disorder, those with clinical depression suffer from a chronic low mood. You may not always be depressed, but you might experience significant depressive “episodes” at various times in your life.
A depressed person loses the ability to feel and express emotions to the outside world. Joy, happiness, and pleasure, is replaced by numbness, pain, sadness, guilt, and self-judgement. Yet, you may not always be aware when you slip into a depressive state.
Depression can manifest in a wide variety of symptoms, including:
- Intense fatigue
- Loss of interest in things you once loved
- Lack of interest in personal hygiene
- Unexplained muscle and bodily pain
- Digestive distress
- Loss of self-worth
- Suicidal ideation
- Anger and irritability
Depression and chronic stress
Depression comes in many forms. Physiological changes like nutrient malabsorption, chronic infection, and autoimmune diseases link to depression. Yet, experiential factors can also play a major role. Depression goes hand-in-hand with chronic stress. Scientists at the University of Buffalo found that stress decreased endocannabinoids in rodents.
Endocannabinoids are compounds like those found in cannabis. In a sense, they are our body’s natural THC. THC is the primary psychoactive in the cannabis plant. Endocannabinoids have a wide variety of important functions. They help balance mood and influence our reward-seeking behavior. They also regulate sleep, appetite, and certain aspects of the immune system. In a sense, the endocannabinoid system helps maintain balance in the body.
When you’re depressed, increasing endocannabinoid function may help restore your mood. Dr. Samir Haj-Dahmane, lead researcher , explains:
Chronic stress is one of the major causes of depression. Using compounds derived from cannabis – marijuana – to restore normal endocannabinoid function could potentially help stabilize moods and ease depression.
Depression and inflammation
Over the past decade, research has revealed something fascinating about depression. During a depressive episode, brain inflammation rises. Inflammation causing proteins called cytokines are abundant in the brains of depressed people.
This causes all sorts of trouble. The immune system activates as if it is fighting off some kind of chronic infection. Except, that “infection” just happens to be your own brain.
This theory is the “Immune Cytokine Model of Depression“. The theory draws from the wealth of evidence connecting excess inflammation and depression. It states that depression is not a disease per se, but rather a chronic activation of the immune system.
Genetics, stress, and environmental factors contribute to whether this inflammation manifests as depression. Perhaps this is why depression feels a lot like having the flu.
An inflammation-fighting herb
This is where cannabis comes in. The herb is a potent anti-inflammatory. Recent research has found that cannabis decreases inflammation in the brain. In 2014, scientists from Tel Aviv University found that low doses of THC reduce brain swelling.
Their study used ultralow doses, so the mice didn’t experience any psychoactive side effects. In their abstract, Miriam Fishbein-Kaminietsky, Mikhal Gafni and Yosef Sarne write:
Our results suggest that an ultralow dose of THC that lacks any psychotrophic activity protects the brain from neuroinflammation-induced cognitive damage and might be used as an effective drug for the treatment of neuroinflammatory conditions, including neurodegenerative diseases.
The Israeli study goes hand in hand with research on cannabis as a neuroprotective plant. Cannabis contains antioxidants, which aid cell repair and help protect DNA from damage. Compounds in the plant speed up recovery from traumatic brain injuries, encouraging the growth of new brain cells.
Less inflammation in the brain means less depression. When inflammation goes down, the body stops attacking itself. This gives your brain a chance to heal and overcome damage from stress.
Other ways cannabis treats depression
There are a few more practical reasons why cannabis is such a powerful antidepressant. While it reduces brain inflammation, it also helps fight depression in a few other key ways. Here’s what they are:
Some people sleep too much when they’re depressed. Other people can’t sleep at all. If you’re one of the latter folk, cannabis can kick your insomnia to the curb. Not getting enough sleep only makes your depression worse. Sleep is when your body repairs itself and clears toxins out of the brain.
Poor sleep also increases inflammation. Even a single night without sleep increases inflammation in the body and brain.
If you find yourself lying awake, a little herb will help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. This gives you a chance to catch up on some much-needed rest.
Just like sleep, people have different responses to food when they are depressed. It’s not uncommon to crave carbs and sugar-laden foods. Yet, some people find that they have no appetite whatsoever. Cannabis can help with both of these things.
Research has shown that cannabidiol (CBD) is a gentle appetite suppressant. CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid. If you’re prone to overeating, you might find a high-CBD strain helpful.
If you have no appetite, you’ll want to stick with THC. Perhaps the most famous cannabinoid, this compound is the culprit behind the munchies. Getting proper nutrition is vital to those with mental health issues. If you’re not eating, your body is not getting the nutrients it needs to heal itself. THC kicks your metabolism into overdrive. You will feel hungry, and food will smell and taste better as a result.
Depression feels like having the flu. You can have random body aches, joint pain, stomach distress, and headaches. All of this is far from pleasant. Fortunately, cannabis is a potent pain reliever. You can rub an infused-topical on your temples if you have a headache.
The same inflammation-fighting properties that help heal the brain also reduce pain in the body. These anti-inflammatory effects can be found in:
- Cannabis oil
- Vaporized cannabis
- Raw, non-psychoactive cannabis juices
An improved mood is one of the primary ways this little herb can help. When you haven’t laughed for days, cannabis can put a smile on your face. Sitting yourself down with some healthy snacks, a comedy, and some cannabis is sure to send you into giggle fits.
If you’ve been avoiding other people, both THC and CBD can help ease social anxiety. The plant can help you come out of your shell and finally have a little bit of fun. Laughter is truly the best medicine.
Types of cannabis for depression
Every person reacts differently to cannabis. Some people may have a lot of luck with psychoactive THC. Others might prefer something a little more mild, without any associated paranoia or anxiety. Here’s the scoop on what to look for in antidepressant cannabis:
THC can be a bit tricky. Once you have some experience with it, many people swear by the cannabinoid for depression relief. However, one study has shown that high-THC may actually cause low mood. Low doses of THC increased the amount of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. When serotonin is too low, you may feel a little depressed. Dr. Gabriella Gobbi from McGill University explains:
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.
Other studies, however, have negated this fact. A nationwide, longitudinal study conducted earlier this year found that cannabis use was not linked with an increase in depression. The study examined over 35,000 adults aged 18 and up. Cannabis users were no more likely to develop depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders than their non-using counterparts.
Another study found that cannabinoid receptors are key targets for the treatment of depression. Cannabinoid receptors are special cell sites where compounds like THC connect. The CB1 receptor, the primary binding site for THC, was found to cause antidepressant effects when activated.
So, the results are pretty convincing. The best way to tell if THC works for you is to try it. Start with low doses and see how you feel. Work your way up if necessary.
If you’re wary about THC or don’t like the way it feels, there is another option. High-CBD strains have shocked the world with their medical efficacy. It is an anti-epileptic, antipsychotic, anxiolytic, and antidepressant all rolled into one. The best part? It is not associated with the anxiety or paranoia caused by THC.
In fact, if you consume a strain that contains both THC and CBD, the CBD protects against some of the anxiety-producing properties of THC.
If you need something fast-acting, CBD is for you. A study published in April of this year highlighted the rapid, antidepressant qualities of CBD. Using mice models, research published in Neuropharmacology found that CBD is fast-acting and continues to work over time.
The team injected mice modified to exhibit anxiety and depression behaviors with the cannabinoid. The rodents exhibited both hyperactivity and an inability to feel pleasure.
This changed after they were given CBD. The hyperactivity dwindled, and the mice began to engage in normal activities again. Such a rapid change is nearly unbelievable. Typical pharmaceutical antidepressants can take weeks to kick in. With CBD, anxiety and depression symptoms were alleviated faster that any other known antidepressant on the market.
Another study published in 2010 tested the antidepressant effects of a variety of cannabinoids. Again using rodent models, scientists found that THC, CBD, and another cannabinoid called cannabichromene (CBC) all exhibited potent antidepressant effects.
Yet another study found that the antidepressant effects of CBD were comparable to a common tricyclic medication imipramine, also known as Tofranil.
The evidence for CBD’s success is overwhelming. It is non-psychoactive, meaning that it’s great to use during the daytime. While THC also has potent antidepressant effects, the high that comes along with it may not be desirable to some. CBD is far more discrete.
Best strains for depression
To get you started, here are few basic strains thought to work well for depression:
- Sour tsunami
- Stress Killer (Royal Queen Seeds)
- Jack Herer
- Dr. Grinspoon
- Granddaddy Purple
A healthy diet is paramount for those with depression. The reason why might surprise you. Over 90% of the body’s serotonin is made and stored in the gut. How is this possible? Well, when you eat food, enzymes in the small intestine begin the process of digestion. These enzymes begin to break down and extract vital brain-boosting nutrients from your food.
These enzymes aren’t the only things that extract nutrients, however. Trillions of gut microbes also lend a helping hand. Bacteria, yeasts, and other microbes are key to serotonin synthesis.
There are a few types of cells that contribute to serotonin production. Neurons, immune cells, and enterochromaffin (EC) cells. Last year, researchers from CalTech wanted to see if gut microbes have an impact on the way that these cells produce serotonin.
So, they measured serotonin in mice born in a sterile environment with no gut microbes. They then compared them to mice with normal gut microbes. They found that mice without any microbes saw a 60% reduction in serotonin production in EC cells. Lead author Jessica Yano explains:
EC cells are rich sources of serotonin in the gut. What we saw in this experiment is that they appear to depend on microbes to make serotonin—or at least a large portion of it.
Foods for a healthy, serotonin-producing gut
- Plant fibers (leafy greens, apples, pears, all veggies and most plant foods)
- Onion, garlic, leek
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Fermented foods (kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir)
- Chamomile tea
- Probiotic capsules
Those who respond poorly to stress are more likely to experience depression. It’s well worth it to take some time out of your day to take care of yourself. Meditation and mindfulness practice can work wonders. Scheduling time for low-key, pleasurable activities is another important solution.
Set aside a weekend afternoon for a walk out in nature. Sign up for a restorative yoga class. Putting energy and focus into self-care can help distract you from the pain of depression.
Physical exercises and being around loved ones both increase dopamine, which is another key mood-lifting neurotransmitter. Even though you may have absolutely no desire to leave the house or engage with others, taking small steps to re-engage with society is key when you’re going through a bout of depression.
Make a schedule and pencil in time for two to three enjoyable activities each week. This could be as simple as a funny movie night, a short walk with the dog, or even just practicing along with a yoga/meditation video like the one above. Just getting that routine started will work wonders.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a solutions-focused form of psychotherapy. Many people with depression experience a lot of rumination. Rumination is dwelling on the past or life events that you cannot control. CBT can help you overcome rumination and life stressors by teaching you better stress management techniques and helping you focus on the present.
Cannabis on its own will not cure your depression. It is another form of medication that can help you cope with symptoms and function in everyday life. However, treating depression requires a multifaceted approach.
The information in this article is for educational purposes only, and should not be used in place of medical treatment or advice. Depression can be paralyzing, and cannabis is just one tool of many that can help you get back on your feet.
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