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Medical Marijuana For Depression: Is It An Effective Treatment Option?

Medical marijuana has a variety of uses in everyday society. Some people swear by it as the best treatment for their health conditions. Various health conditions that medical marijuana is used for include: nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), pain management, and muscle spasms. The fact is that there are many therapeutic effects that can be derived from medical marijuana. Although the usage of marijuana is a highly effective treatment for certain conditions, using it to treat depression is generally not recommended.

Medical Marijuana for Depression: Should it be used?

Medical marijuana is not typically prescribed to treat depression. Marijuana is primarily a depressant – which could actually exacerbate symptoms of depression. In people who are clinically depressed, we must look at scientifically studied treatment options. In one large scale Swedish study of over 40,000 men ages 18 to 20, marijuana was not associated with any increased risk of depression.

Does this study mean that it is safe to use as a treatment option? No. Nowhere in the study did it say that marijuana improved mood in people with depression. It simply found that in this age group of men, it didn’t raise depression rates. However, what if you are someone who has gone through the standard treatments such as SSRI’s, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and are at your wits end? There are still plenty of other augmentation strategies for treatment resistant depression that you probably haven’t tried.

These strategies should always be utilized before turning to medical marijuana. Obviously many people self-medicate with marijuana and it can help them get through tough times. Unfortunately there isn’t much evidence in support of its usage as a long term treatment option for depression. As research progresses, we will find out more about whether it can help individuals with depression.

Why medical marijuana is not recommended for depression treatment

There are a number of reasons that medical marijuana is not considered a universal top notch treatment for depression. Most professionals have concerns with safety, dependency, side effects, and long term effects of marijuana on brain development. There simply isn’t enough research to justify its use in treating depression.

  • Alters brain structure: There is some evidence that suggests that cannabis usage may alter brain structure in both adolescents and adults. The fact that it could have such an impact on the brain of someone suffering from depression raises a flag of caution.
  • Causes depression: There are moderate associations between early-marijuana use and depression. Therefore, some experts believe that marijuana can actually cause some people to feel more depressed. A study found that those who smoked cannabis in adolescence and/or adulthood were at an increased risk of experiencing “depression spells” in adulthood.
  • Dependency: Marijuana dependency is associated with major depressive disorder. Individuals that are dependent or frequent users of marijuana are more likely to have issues with depression. Many drugs can temporarily alleviate symptoms of depression, but most substances do not provide long term relief.
  • Depressant: Marijuana acts primarily as a depressant on the central nervous system. Among individuals that are depressed, this may actually worsen the condition. In most cases of depression, people need to stimulate activity in the nervous system, not depress it.
  • Not researched: There is a lot of bro-science or unfounded recommendations about marijuana working for depression. Heck there is even evidence that while using it many people experience an antidepressant effect. However, we do not know the sustainability of this antidepressant effect and the degree to which users experience an uplifted mood. There aren’t many major studies that have been conducted with marijuana to treat depression.
  • Panic attacks: The usage of marijuana has been linked to causing panic attacks. Although it may help with depression, it may cause people to panic. Panic itself could make it even more difficult to deal with depression.
  • Schizophrenia: Some believe that marijuana can cause schizophrenia. Various studies have found links between marijuana usage and schizophrenia. Although evidence is controversial, it should be considered. Another study also found that it can raise schizoaffective tendencies.
  • Suicidal thoughts: Some believe that marijuana can cause individuals to develop suicidal thoughts. This obviously would make it tougher for an individual that is already struggling with severe depressive symptoms.
  • Withdrawal: Although for many people withdrawal isn’t much, for others the marijuana withdrawal symptoms are severe. These include things like: cravings, irritability, depression, and anxiety. Due to the fact that this medication can be difficult to withdraw from, it is not recommended as treatment. Some would argue though that SSRI’s can be just as difficult.

Should you use medical marijuana for depression?

Nobody can tell you how to treat your depression. You have full control over what actions you take to cope with your condition. Most scientific research suggests that marijuana is probably not the best treatment option for depression. Although it may have an antidepressant effect while using it, so do many other illicit substances.  For further reading, check out the article Psychological Benefits of Marijuana. When the effect wears off, the person then must ingest more marijuana to achieve the desired emotional effect.

Additionally, not everyone experiences an antidepressant effect. Most evidence points to the fact that marijuana usage can actually contribute to feelings of depression and dependency. If we are talking illicit drugs, there is considerably more evidence for using psilocybin for depression than there is marijuana. The most well documented treatments for depression are cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants (SSRIs).

If you are looking for the most natural possible treatment options for your depression, read the article 10 natural cures for depression. There are methods that people can get over their depression without using drugs of any kind. Now that marijuana is starting to become legal in many states, I’m sure more studies will be conducted regarding potential antidepressant properties. But until a large-scale study proves that marijuana is a viable long term solution for clinical depression, it cannot be medically recommended.

List of References:

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3563634/
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2915487/
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3351086/
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2565493/
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480923/
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16271364/
  7. http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/treatan/treana17.htm
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23386598/
  9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3859982/
  10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538401/

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Cat March 28, 2014, 7:13 pm

    No, because there is always a come-down and it is not consistent. If you have bipolar disorder, expect worse problems. I feel much more even-keeled since I quit in that I can handle the depression with a clear head which allows me to find healthier and more consistent practices to deal with it other than medication, which don’t really do anything and can be harmful long term. Same with cannabis.

  • Cristobal May 19, 2014, 10:59 pm

    I have to call out this claim “Alters brain structure: There is some evidence that suggests that cannabis usage may alter brain structure in both adolescents and adults.” So- that claim would apply equally to brain cell growth (nuerogenesis) and otherwise healthy developments in the brain as well as any negative outcomes. In fact it is a little like saying “adolescence itself alters brain structure so we should use means stunt growth and delay puberty.” -an obviously totally absurd suggestion. We may WANT brain structure to be altered in treatment of mental illness. Doing so may be the prerequisite for any cure.

    • GLOOM May 20, 2014, 2:50 pm

      Generally the “alterations” are not considered positive ones… As it can cuse disruptions in electrical activity throughout the brain. And no it’s not at all like saying “adolescence alters brain activity”…

  • Jim June 26, 2014, 3:34 pm

    Interesting post. Though I will have to disagree with you on some points. Particularly as to the impact of the structural changes to the brain. Depressed and ADHD brains are often structurally different (typically more white matter in the cerebellum). So given that mmj’s safety profile is so much better than sri’s and given mmj’s broad global use (basically a volunteer lab cohort in the billions over the last 100 years), I don’t see why someone who failed with pharmaceutical solutions shouldn’t try it – particularly give the addictive nature of the ssri’s. Watching my wife stop Paxil was very hard I didn’t even notice when she stopped smoking.

    The assumption that the structural brain changes marijuana causes are negative has not been shown to be true though it is certainly possible. But the fact of the matter is that the SSRIs fundamentally change the way the human brain operates and it’s not clear what the impacts of that are in the long term and as you mention, stopping them can be a beast. Marijuana has been used much more broadly globally and for much longer than SSRIs with a safety profile that is unmatched by any modern pharmaceutical. So I don’t understand the recommendation to not try marijuana particularly if other antidepressants have failed compared to other options the risks are minimal.
    Thanks again for the post.

    • GLOOM June 27, 2014, 4:57 am

      Hi Jim, it’s debatable whether the SSRI’s “change” the brain for the long term. Most would argue that following a withdrawal period, an individual’s brain will eventually return to homeostatic functioning – it simply takes time for readjustment. Although medical marijuana has not been proven effective for depression, many people may find that it boosts mood when they use it.

      At the end of the day if all “clinically effective” options have been explored and aren’t providing relief for depression, a person may consider using an off-label option such as marijuana. As always though, it is important to weigh the pros and cons and understand how this substance can affect people.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.

  • ex-depressed September 10, 2014, 6:40 pm

    Sorry, but I can not agree with you on this one. Before I tried cannabis I had already been taking SSRI medication for a long time. It didn’t help my depression. It didn’t make me feel less depressed. It simply numbed my emotions to the point it was physically impossible to feel depressed.

    I have to say it was actually worse than being depressed. While depressed I could at least feel sadness, if nothing else.
    It all changed when I started practicing meditation and started using cannabis. After consuming I’d feel noticeably happier for several days after use, something I never experienced while on SSRI’s.
    I do acknowledge different people respond to different medications in a different manner, but for me cannabis was loads better than SSRI’s.

    I still have to stay for anyone wondering about cannabis: It’s not magic that will cause your depression to instantly vanish into thin air, but for me it greatly helped in overcoming my problems by myself and taking the necessary steps to recovery.

  • Rolph November 18, 2014, 6:50 am

    You say there simply is not enough research to recommend cannabis use for treating depression. A ‘Why is there not enough research’ heading would have helped your analysis and understanding of the issue you’ve attempted to explain. The pharmaceutical industry make enormous PROFITS each year by filling the prescriptions of people diagnosed with depression and other mental disorders.

    These drugs are created rapidly and can be argued to have insignificant benefits on treating depression when you consider the evidence about the uncertainty and probable negative effects on functions in other areas of the brain and how short the clinical testing periods are for determining the success of the drug. The lack of research of unknown risks is overshadowed by the claims to successfully treating depression. Why is there a lack of evidence into the benefits of cannabis for treating depression and funnily enough a lack of research into the risks of pharmaceutical drugs? You decide.

    • GLOOM November 18, 2014, 7:39 pm

      Rolph, agreed that big pharma makes a lot of profits each year. But these drugs are heavily tested and must make it through years of clinical trials before they are granted approval – they are not quickly constructed and thrown at the people. While marijuana may seem like a legitimate option, there is currently no substantial evidence to suggest that it improves clinical depression.

      • Rolph November 19, 2014, 7:09 am

        The fact is some use cannabis and others use SSRI drugs to treat clinical depression and some use a combination of both. There is evidence of pros and cons to each treatment depending on which research you choose to accept or does not exist. I urge anyone considering which treatment option may best alleviate the symptoms of clinical depression to objectively inform themselves on there short and long term risks on overall health and there implications and consequences, regardless of which treatment has been approved for commercial sale and recommended by authorities :)

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