Cannabis and mental health can have a complicated relationship. On one hand, the herb is widely used to improve mood and fight stress. On the other hand, many medical professionals report that cannabis can worsen anxiety and contribute to more depression over time. So, what’s the deal? Which one is it? This segment of Medical Cannabis Myth Busters will answer the question: does cannabis worsen depression?
Does cannabis worsen depression?
Everyone knows that cannabis can make you laugh, lift your spirits, and quickly change your perspective. These traits are part of what makes the herb so valuable to those with depression. Some of these known anecdotal benefits are finally being proven in the laboratory.
In one recent study, rodents displaying depressive symptoms were treated with nonpsychoactive CBD. In just a few minutes after treatment, researchers measured a significant spike in serotonin levels. Though the serotonin-depression hypothesis is controversial, the team believes that these results give cannabis some serious antidepressant potential.
Patients who opt for the traditional pharmaceutical options have to wait up to six weeks for the drugs to have an impact on their serotonin.
Another 2015 rodent study from the University of Buffalo found that rodents under chronic stress had reduced endocannabinoid production. Endocannabinoids are the body’s own THC. Chronic stress triggered the onset of depression symptoms in the rodents.
The finding led lead study author Dr. Samir Haj-Dahmane to state,
Using compounds derived from cannabis – marijuana – to restore normal endocannabinoid function could potentially help stabilize moods and ease depression.
Other animal research has found that THC in low doses boosts serotonin, but high doses of the cannabinoid had the opposite effect. As mentioned, there is a lot of controversy about the serotonin hypothesis. But, if you go by that theory, this is a sign that staying small with your psychoactive cannabis use may provide effective depression relief.
Depression over time
Yet, the argument that cannabis worsens mental health doesn’t center on acute use. Rather, arguments against cannabis for mental health typically suggest that consuming the herb long-term can exacerbate depressive symptoms over time.
In one 2014 study, researchers found that the brain’s of chronic cannabis consumers became less sensitive to dopamine over time. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that promotes pleasure, reward, pain, and focus. Lack of dopamine is also implicated in some models of depression.
The idea here is that less sensitivity to dopamine makes you apathetic and detached, two major symptoms of depression. However, other studies offer counterpoints to this argument. In 2012, researchers found that cannabis use was not associated with long-term changes in dopamine sensitivity.
Why could this be?
The body is an amazing entity. Turns out, cells in our bodies constantly respond to the environment. Shocker, right?
If you consume cannabis every day, your body gets used to having that constant input of cannabinoids like THC. When it becomes accustomed to that input, it begins to tell some cell receptors that they are no longer needed. This is called downregulation.
Downregulation and the opposite phenomenon, upregulation, happen all of the time. When you’re getting more cannabinoids than you need, cells adjust and make themselves less sensitive to the compound. When cells aren’t getting enough of the compounds, they express more receptors to match their needs.
Thus far, there is no evidence that cannabis causes lasting downregulation receptors. In fact, recent research suggests that if used by adults, cannabis does not cause lasting brain changes. However, it is possible to feel temporarily out of sorts when you develop a tolerance to cannabis.
Tolerance will mean that you need to consume more and more cannabis to feel the same relief. If you stop consuming cannabis, you may have a low mood, difficulty sleeping, and other symptoms while your body adjusts to its new internal environment.
Fortunately, there’s a way to use science to get around some of these issues. Though, you’ll want to work with a doctor to ensure that you’re taking the best possible actions against these problems.
Hacks and tricks
More human trials are needed to determine exactly how cannabis engages with depression. Unfortunately, researchers still don’t actually know all that much about the condition. For one, new theories that inflammation and irregularities in the immune system contribute to depression are taking the lead.
In the future, the medical community may discover that different types of depression respond better to treatments that address the root cause of the issue, rather than continue to treat depression as one universal disorder.
Yet, when it comes to cannabis and depression, there are a few tidbits of information that might make the herb more effective for those who use it long term.
Ask your doctor about:
Taking periodic tolerance breaks can help you maintain efficacy with cannabis. Some people like to alternate days that they use cannabis treatments. Others will opt for a couple of weeks on and a week or so off. Every person has a different biochemistry and different needs.
Simply stated, you develop tolerance because your cells have become accustomed to getting cannabinoids from an outside source. Temporarily removing the source forces them upregulate cell receptors because they no longer have their standard input. A doctor/functional medicine practitioner will be able to tell you how to safely take these breaks.
Switching your cannabinoids when you feel like your standard cannabis treatment is no longer effective is another option. For example, if you typically use THC, you temporarily switch to CBD.
Though these compounds are most effective when used together, most products and strains out there are dominant in either one or the other.
Both of these cannabinoids work in very different ways, so switching them might be helpful for those who are not getting the results that they want. Of course, a doctor/functional medicine practitioner will be able to tell you whether or not this is a viable option for you.
For more information on cannabinoid cycling, check out the article here.
So, does cannabis worsen depression? The answer is a bit convoluted. There’s a lot of anecdotal and animal evidence that the herb is a potent and fast-acting antidepressant. Yet, developing a tolerance to the plant can make you feel crummy. To avoid tolerance, you may have to switch up your technique now and again.
As an important disclaimer, this information is not medical advice and is meant for educational purposes only. Always check with your doctor before experimenting with new treatments.