According to the World Health Organization, roughly 350 million people suffer from depression worldwide, with 16 million of those individuals in the U.S. alone. Many scientists believe depression is related to lower levels of key neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which helps regulate mood, appetite, sleep and sexual function. As a result, most antidepressants work to replace the missing serotonin.
When serotonin levels get too low, people may experience feelings of depression, fatigue and, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts. Genetic factors can be the cause of low serotonin as can chronic stress.
In this article, part of our series geared towards folks new to cannabis, we take a look at how cannabis may help ease symptoms of depression. And we include a couple of success stories from patients who’ve been able to manage their depression effectively with the use of this multipurpose medicine.
Julia, a 24-year-old waitress and former teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, says that cannabis plays a big part in managing her depression. She first started using cannabis for pain management when recovering from a surgery. Then, last year she was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder. While doctors first put Julia on antidepressants, she didn’t like the way they made her feel.
“My brain was just thinking completely differently, and I didn't really feel like myself,” she says.
Ultimately she decided to opt for a more natural route by managing her depression with cannabis. And she couldn’t be happier with the results. Julia says that cannabis helps her keep a more positive mindset, but in a way that feels authentic to who she is.
“For me, I always felt like I was stuck in a rut,” Julia says. “Once I started using cannabis, my interactions with people were much healthier. I was able to think through any kind of problem I was having; they no longer seemed to be overwhelmingly large. The annoying little things that used to take up so much of my daily life didn't matter anymore.”
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Jacob, a 40-year-old chef and cannabis entrepreneur from Oakland, CA, has also benefited from cannabis’s mood-elevating properties. He says that over the years cannabis has helped with his depression, which has often intensified in times of heightened career stress.
That said, Jacob also says that cannabis can have the reverse effect if he takes too much of it. “Then you can be kind of irritable or intolerant of things that you’d normally brush off,” he explains.
Jacob says sometimes the negative effects of cannabis can present themselves after periods of intense stress when he relies more heavily on the plant to combat his depression. “That's a big pattern I've been able to keep an eye on over 25 years of cannabis use,” he says. “During large, stressful points of my life, I definitely have double intake. When everything’s nice and calm, I realize how much cannabis I’m going through.”
Jacob says at these times he’s used essential oils to help ease his anxiety and depression, while he works on cutting back his dose and lowering his tolerance to cannabis. Once back on lower doses, he finds he’s able to keep his depression in check.
These patient stories align perfectly with the science of how cannabis can alleviate depression. Marijuana is known to stimulate the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which plays a part in signaling for more serotonin. During stressful times, the ECS is impaired, leading to lower levels of serotonin. So, consuming cannabis can help activate your body’s natural mood boosters. For patients whose endocannabinoid systems aren’t functioning properly, cannabis can make all the difference.
That said, if your ECS becomes oversaturated with cannabinoids, it can actually switch things in the other direction. While studies show that cannabis can improve mood, they also show that too much marijuana can have the opposite effect, actually worsening depression.
Folks with stress-related depression may find that when their stress has decreased, the amount of cannabis that helps may also get smaller. For this condition, it’s always best to work with the smallest dose that effectively alleviates your symptoms.
If you suffer from depression and think cannabis might be right for you, the best first step is to talk to a doctor. You can consult with one of HelloMD’s knowledgeable doctors; it's easy, private and 100% online.
Whether you have a medical marijuana card or live in a state where you can purchase through recreational means, there are many options on the market today. Sativas are often suggested for depression, because they have many energizing and mood-boosting cannabinoids and terpenes.
Keep in mind, however, that sativas may not work for everyone. Some—myself included—find sativa strains to be too anxiety-provoking and look to hybrids or indicas instead. Afgoo and Blueberry are two indica-dominant hybrids that always put a smile on my face. Whatever you try, remember that cannabis can affect people differently, so you may need to try a few options before you find the right one for you.
In the next installment of the Cannabis for Newbies guide, we’ll go over how cannabis can help relieve migraine pain.
Photo credit: David Cohen