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How cannabis may treat depression

Believe it or not, depression is the number one cause of disability in America. However, depression is also a mental health disorder that much of the country still doesn’t understand, or at least not properly. It’s thought that around 15 million Americans suffer from depression, yet treatment options remain limited and sub-standard. Many resort to medication; however prescription drugs can be addictive and have a drastic, negative effect on personality and more.

Therefore, many depression sufferers seek out alternative solutions – cannabis being one. This herb is powerful, and stacked with unique, natural compounds called cannabinoids. In this piece, we’ll give you the low down on some of these cannabinoids and explain why marijuana can be a great way of treating depression.

Understanding depression

Many people think they understand depression, or that they have it themselves. However, depression is not merely feeling sad when something unfortunate happens. Instead, depression is a mood disorder that can severely affect your quality of life and your mental state of being. A chronic low mood is one of the key symptoms of depression. For some, depression comes and goes in “episodes,” while others are stuck in a constant battle.

For those who have never had depression, the condition can be hard to explain. But in a nutshell, it sucks the happiness, excitement and energy out of a person and replaces it with intense sadness, guilt, low self-esteem and even pain. Those with depression are typically less emotive and feel numb to life. Even worse, some people don’t even know they are depressed, put their symptoms down to other matters and fail to get the necessary treatment.

Common symptoms of depression include:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Fatigue
  • Inexplicable body and muscle pain
  • Poor personal hygiene due to lack of interest
  • Loss of interest in passions
  • Irritable
  • Increased or reduced appetite
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Low self-esteem

There are many reasons why somebody may get depression. It can be caused by physiological changes, such as autoimmune diseases. Chronic stress is linked to depression.

Interestingly, a study from the University of Buffalo on rodents revealed that endocannabinoid levels are reduced by stress. These endocannabinoids are crucial in keeping homeostasis in the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and act as a natural THC – THC is the number one psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis. In recent years, scientists have learned that the ECS is responsible for controlling many bodily and psychological functions, including mood and reward mechanisms.

The study’s lead researcher, Dr Samir Haj-Dahmane says that increasing endocannabinoid function may hold the key to boosting mood when depressed. Haj-Dahmane added that the cannabinoids in cannabis could perhaps help to ease depression by regulating the ECS, reducing stress levels in the process.

Brain inflammation and depression

Depression research has sped up significantly in the past 10 years or so, and scientists have found something intriguing about the disorder: depression causes an increase in brain inflammation. Depression patients have higher concentrations of a harmful protein called cytokines.

Cytokines spur the immune system into action, as it attempts to battle off a perceived threat. However, there is no infection in the traditional sense – the problem is in the brain.

The “Immune Cytokine Model of Depression” is a potentially ground-breaking theory that makes a direct link between depression and excessive brain inflammation. Advocates of this theory argue that depression is not a disease as one thought, but the result of overactivity in the immune system.

Stress levels, genetics and even the environment influence whether brain inflammation leads to full-scale depression. Some have wondered if all this explains why flu-like symptoms are often present in depression patients.

Cannabis is an anti-inflammatory – so can it treat depression too?

The anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis have been known for years. Patients with inflammatory conditions that manifest in physical pain, such as arthritis, are turning to the herb en masse to get away from prescription drugs.

Scientists from Tel Aviv University have found that low-dosing THC helps to reduce brain swelling, as part of a 2014 study. Additional research has confirmed the anti-inflammatory effect that cannabis in general has on the brain.

To prevent the mice from enduring hallucinogenic side effects, the scientists only administered microdoses of THC.

Mikhal Gafni, Miriam Fishbein-Kaminietsky and Yosef Sarne wrote that low doses of THC worked as a protectant from “neuroinflammation-induced cognitive damage,” in the abstract of their work. They suggested that THC could be efficacious at combatting neurodegenerative diseases.

A wealth of research now supports the notion that cannabis is a neuroprotectant. Furthermore, the plant has antioxidant properties which protects DNA and facilitates cell repair. Cannabis promotes cell production, thereby accelerating traumatic brain injury recovery.

A reduction in brain inflammation leads to a reduction in depression. As inflammation subsides, the body’s immune system calms down and stops attacking the supposed infection. The brain is now better placed to recover from stress-related damage.

However, marijuana’s depression-busting properties extend beyond merely reducing brain inflammation. The herb makes us laugh, eases our pain, improves our sleep patterns and can correct our appetite. Let’s investigate this quartet of effects in more depth.

Beat depression by laughing

You may have heard it before, but it’s true – laughter really can be the best medicine. When you’re depressed, the chances are you haven’t been amused and had a can’t-catch-your-breath laugh for days, weeks or even months. A bit of marijuana can right those wrongs. Dose up, chill out with your favorite treats, put your favorite comedy on and immerse yourself in a laughter-filled world, if only for a while.

Perhaps social anxiety is at the root of your depression. In the right context, CBD and THC can reduce anxiety and alleviate your stresses and concerns, making you more comfortable in social situations. Muting that paralysing anxiety enables you to have a good time, improve your mood and forget about your depression.

Beat depression by improving sleep

Depression can really interfere with your sleep – some people find themselves awake all night fretting, while others feel so fatigued they spend every spare moment with their head in the pillow. Insomniacs may already be tuned into the beneficial properties of cannabis and CBD, and the dangers of not getting enough sleep.

The body rejuvenates itself during sleep while the brain uses this time to wash out harmful toxins. Therefore, not getting enough can worsen your depression by allowing cytokines to thrive.

Moreover, increased inflammation is a side effect of a lack of sleep – and it only takes one sleepless night for it to rear up.

So, the next time you find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 in the morning, try smoking or vaping some marijuana. It will take your mind off things and put you into that desirable sleepy state.

Beat depression by regulating appetite

Depression influences our appetite, and not for the better. Some find that it makes them crave ‘comfort food’, which is generally high in carbohydrates, sugar or both. Others, however, find that depression suppresses their appetite completely. Whether you’re eating too much or enough, cannabis can help.

CBD, a non-hallucinogenic cannabinoid, has been shown to have a slightly suppressant effect on appetite. Instead of turning to comfort food, perhaps try some CBD oil or a strain high in CBD.

Those suffering with a lack of appetite should opt for high-THC strains – the ones most popular with recreational users. THC is the compound that gives people the “munchies”, which is maybe the most famous effect of cannabis. While this trait often encourages people to pig out on their favorite foods, there’s no reason why it cannot be used to put the mind in a state where it’s no longer a chore to eat nutrient-rich meals. THC speeds up the metabolism, which boosts hunger levels, giving food a better aroma and taste.

Beat depression by easing pain

As already mentioned, depression brings with it a list of flu-like symptoms. It’s common to experience aches and pains in the joints, headaches and migraines and stomach distress. The potent analgesic properties of cannabis can help with all of these. The rise of topical cannabis has enhanced the plant’s pain-relieving potential further. Users can now rub lotions and potions into affected area to stir activity among cannabinoid receptors in the skin.

The anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis can be best utilized when consumed in the following forms:

  • Vaporizing
  • Edibles
  • Raw cannabis
  • Cannabis oils

Best cannabis products for depression

Our unique brain chemistry and endocannabinoid levels means that people react differently to cannabis and cannabinoid medicines. While some find the psychoactive properties of THC to be very positive, some are overwhelmed with paranoia and anxiety. Thankfully, the modern cannabis market has a diverse range of strains, allowing everyone to benefit from the herb. High-CBD strains suit those who find their anxiety-caused depression is made worse by THC.

The lowdown on THC

The arrival of CBD-dominant cannabis has pushed THC to one side. The compound’s psychoactive effects have long contributed to the stigma surrounding marijuana, and its therapeutic properties have, to some degree, been forgotten. Many with depression are steadfast in their belief that THC-laden cannabis has helped them with the disorder, and who are we to disagree?

However, there is also research which explains why not everybody gets on with THC. A recent study linked chronic THC consumption to low mood.

But, to complicate things further, another study has linked low doses of synthetic THC to an increase in serotonin production. Serotonin is a mood-modulating neurotransmitter. There are links between low serotonin levels and depression.

According to McGill University’s Dr Gabriella Gobbi, THC has a double effect. In low doses, the cannabinoid is an anti-depressant, but in higher doses it’s the opposite. Gobbi explained how serotonin levels increased in rats’ brains after a small dose of THC but reduced below the levels of the control group when administered in higher doses.

Not that this research is conclusive. A nationwide survey of more than 35,000 adults recently found no connection between cannabis use and depression. The study showed that cannabis users were at no greater risk of anxiety, depression or any other mental health disorders than non-users.

Medical experts are in more agreement than ever that a medication which works with cannabinoid receptors is key to treating depression. THC, CBD and other cannabinoids interact with these receptors, although not in the same way. While THC and CB1 forge a direct bond, CBD latches onto CB1 through a ‘backdoor’. Activation of the CB1 receptor has an antidepressant effect – an indication that THC has a role in medicating depression.

Since raw cannabis is stacked with THC acid (THC-A), in other words non-psychoactive THC, depression patients don’t even have to get high to receive the cannabinoid’s benefits.

The lowdown on CBD

However, if you have had bad experiences with THC in the past, or don’t want to expose yourself to its psychoactive effects, then high-CBD strains could still do you the world of good. The world knew little about cannabidiol until recently, and even many cannabis experts are surprised at just how medically powerful the compound is. Patients with untreatable epilepsy have found relief, as have those with crippling anxiety. The antipsychotic effects of CBD help to treat conditions like psychosis and schizophrenia, while limiting THC’s psychoactivity when the two are taken in conjunction.

Most medicinal cannabis strains have a roughly even mix of CBD to THC – these are known as one-to-one strains. Strains with a balanced concentration of these compounds maximize the synergistic possibilities of the herb. This is commonly referred to as the ‘entourage effect’.

For patients who need instantaneous relief from depression when episodes strike, CBD treatment may be the most suitable cannabinoid medication for you. CBD’s antidepressant properties were showcased in mice models, in a study recently featured in the Neuropharmacology journal. The research found that CBD is fast-acting and has long-lasting effects.

The mice used in the study showed signs of hyperactivity and were unable to feel pleasure. They had been modified as such to better demonstrate the effect of CBD on anxiety and depression.

Following an injection of CBD, the hyperactivity among the rats reduced and they became more like their normal selves. While antidepressant medication can sometimes take weeks or months to show results, the mice were displaying a positive response to CBD after a single dose. This indicates that cannabis-based medicines could become the go-to antidepressants.

In 2010, a team of scientists looked investigated the antidepressant properties of several cannabinoids, including cannabidiol (CBD), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabichromene (CBC). All three cannabinoids displayed powerful antidepressant effects when tested on rodents.

Furthermore, a study into CBD’s antidepressant qualities found that the compound was similar to Tofranil, a tricyclic medication sometimes called imipramine.

The positive research about CBD is growing with every year. Its non-hallucinogenic nature means that people who would have once shied away from cannabis medication are giving the herb a second chance. Meanwhile, as a non-psychoactive substance, CBD is perfectly fine to use in the daytime when you need to be productive.

Good cannabis strains for depression

Everyone will have their favorites, but let’s go over a few popular high-THC and high-CBD strains that people use to treat depression.

High-THC strains

  • Dr Grinspoon
  • Granddaddy Purple
  • Jack Herer

High-CBD strains

  • Charlotte’s Web
  • Cannatonic
  • Harlequin
  • ACDC
  • Sour Tsunami

Other ways to combat depression

People with depression are advised to consume a healthy diet, but perhaps not for the reason you might think. The body stores over 90 percent of the serotonin it produces in the gut. As the small intestine digests food that you eat, enzymes are busy breaking down and extracting nutrients that are beneficial for the brain.

Interestingly, nutrient extraction isn’t just reserved to the enzymes in the small intestines. Serotonin synthesis is also facilitated by the trillions of microbes found in the gut, such as bacteria and yeast.

Immune cells, enterochromaffin cells (EC) and neuron cells are responsible for producing serotonin. Intrigued, CalTech researchers decided to investigate whether gut microbes had any affect on the serotonin production of these cells.

A group of sterile mice with no gut microbes were tested for serotonin levels and compared with another group of normal mice. Serotonin production from the EC cells was reduced by 60 percent among the mice without gut microbes.

The research indicates that the EC cells are dependent on gut microbes to produce serotonin, according to the study’s lead author Jessica Yano.

If you’re looking to maintain a healthy gut that produces serotonin at normal levels, try adding some of the following to your diet:

  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Probiotic capsules
  • Chamomile tea
  • Vegetables – especially leafy greens
  • Onions
  • Garlic

Keeping your stress levels under control also promotes a healthy gut.

People who struggle to manage their stress are more prone to experiencing depression. Taking time each day to spend on yourself helps you to keep your emotions in check. Some choose to meditate and develop their mindfulness skills – they find the peaceful, relaxing nothingness a great way to spend some downtime. Scheduling breaks so you can enjoy the things you love most (watching TV, playing sport) can also help stave off depression.

Make the most of your weekends – if your and outdoors person, try going on a long walk. If you prefer the indoors and solitude, pick out a great boxset and immerse yourself in a quality drama. Whatever you love doing, just ensure that you find the time to do it. Many people slip into depression due to a lack of self-care.

Dopamine is another important neurotransmitter to stimulate when depressed. This can be achieved by physical exercise or spending time with family and good friends. During the worst parts of a depressive episode, socializing with others may be the last thing you want to do. But engaging with others and staying in touch with the world stops you from becoming too isolated with your thoughts. And you may just have a fun, mood-boosting time while you’re at it.

It’s vital that those with depression discipline themselves to have some kind of fun.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

Many depressed people are turning to psychotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to manage their disorder. Rumination is common among depression sufferers, even though no benefit will ever come from replaying past events. However, CBT can help you stop ruminating and tackle other stressful thought processes. CBT teaches you to stay in the present, and spend less time thinking about the past or future.

Final thoughts

Depression cannot be cured just through marijuana. Like any medicine, the herb can help, but other treatments such as CBT, along with willpower are crucial to a full recovery.

This article should be considered as informative and educational, and not taken as medical advice. If you suffer with, or think that you may be suffering from depression, consult a doctor who can advise the best course of action.

Have any thoughts about cannabis and depression? Leave a comment and let us know.

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