Is Medical Marijuana a Good Option for People Suffering from Depression?
In the United States alone, approximately 16 million people struggled with depression in 2012, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. If this statistic seems overwhelming, it’s nothing compared to the global numbers: 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression. In fact, it’s the most prevalent cause of disability across the planet. It tends to hit women harder than men, but no group can totally sidestep depression.
Those who suffer from depression turn to many different coping mechanisms, from holistic to pharmacologic regimens. Recently, medical marijuana has stepped into the spotlight as a potential solution. After all, marijuana has already been found to treat everything from anxiety to nausea and pain related to chemotherapy treatment. However, as some struggle to wrap their mind around this once-recreational drug becoming a treatment option for depression, one question lingers: Is it a valid one?
Signs and Symptoms
Before you can understand the treatment options for depression, you have to understand the condition itself. There’s a major difference between typical sadness and debilitating depression. Those who suffer from true depression will display one or a few telltale signs and symptoms in addition to less tangible feelings, such as emptiness, hopelessness and worthlessness.
Those who are depressed may feel extreme fatigue and have difficulty focusing. They may turn to food, either overeating or undereating, sometimes accompanied by digestive issues. They may have trouble sitting still or sleeping, cope with regular headaches and pain, or even contemplate suicide. If you or someone you love suffers from any of these signs or symptoms, it’s serious, and you should consult with a doctor.
Since depression can’t be measured with a blood test, doctors typically employ qualitative tests to formally diagnose a patient with depression. Many different tests abound, but they usually require a patient to honestly answer a series of questions related to major life events that may have sparked a depressive episode, as well as their own thoughts, feelings and state of physical health. Since millions of people struggle with depression in the U.S., you can also find resources online for a pretest at home.
It’s not as simple as just diagnosing depression and doling out a standard treatment. Depression can vary in its severity and symptoms, so it’s important to know what type you’re dealing with before beginning any treatment. Major depression is the most intense form, as its name suggests. This type of depression can be totally debilitating, making it impossible for a person to get out of bed, go to work and engage in relationships with loved ones.
Chronic depression, or dysthymia, is milder. Although it may be punctuated with bouts of major depression, chronic depression usually involves the previously mentioned signs and symptoms, such as sadness and weight changes, but to a lesser extent. Atypical depression may not trigger any of the normal symptoms at all, but instead revolve around anxiety and lack of sleep.
Many forms of depression correlate to a specific event, period in time or mental health issue. Postpartum depression, for example, unfolds after a woman has given birth. As her body adjusts to its new state, the sudden shifts can cause physical, emotional and behavioral effects. Bipolar depression, on the other hand, arises from a lack of typical regulation in the brain and features major mood swings. Seasonal depression is a cyclical affliction that typically arises during winter due to the lack of sunlight.
As diverse as the types of depression are, the treatments are just as varied. Many doctors will prescribe antidepressant medications in an effort to circumvent some short-circuiting in the brain. One of the most common types of antidepressants is the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which helps the brain correctly regulate serotonin, a feel-good hormone that people with depression sometimes lack in sufficient quantities or are incapable of using correctly.
SSRIs are just one category in a much longer list of potential depression medications, from Cymbalta to Wellbutrin, all designed to correct malfunctioning chemistry in the body. While they work to varying degrees, depending on the patient, they almost always come with side effects. Some trigger increased appetite and weight gain, whereas others lead to fatigue, insomnia and anxiety. They may even cause digestive issues, like constipation, or irritability. So what’s the alternative to these Western medicines?
Medical Marijuana and Depression
Medical marijuana has become more accepted as a valid form of treatment, for everything from chemotherapy — it can ease nausea and vomiting — to anxiety. So it makes sense that scientists would start to study marijuana as a potential treatment for depression. One particularly promising study is underway at the University of Buffalo.
Its Research Institute on Addictions is pursuing the idea that endocannabinoids, a chemical compound the body makes naturally, may play a role in a depression caused by chronic stress. These compounds affect everything from cognition and emotion to behavior and motor control, and when someone experiences stress, researchers hypothesize that endocannabinoids are suppressed. Since these compounds look like those found in cannabis, the supplementation of the plant may help.
So far, the researchers have only performed their studies using animals. However, they’ve found that treating the animals with cannabis produces an effect similar to that of the naturally occurring endocannabinoids, which help combat stress and depression. Although further research is needed, these early signs indicate that medical marijuana could very well be a natural method for combatting depression in the years to come. You can expect to see scientists pursuing more studies in this field.
With this promising research, it seems medical marijuana may, indeed, serve as an effective treatment for those struggling with depression. What’s more, since it’s plant-based, it may not have the same side effects as some typical pharmacological treatments. Although scientists must continue to study the potential benefits, it's certainly not the time to rule out medical marijuana. If you or a loved one suffers from depression, stay abreast of trending developments in this groundbreaking sphere of treatment.