Depression is a medical condition that negatively affects how we feel, act, and behave. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for people aged 15 to 44, affecting over 15 million American adults every year.
It is important to understand and distinguish the differences between sadness and depression. Unfortunately, it is completely normal for us to feel sad throughout our lives, especially at times of loss or extreme stress.
However, this isn’t depression. Depression is a chronic condition that leaves people feeling helpless, hopeless, unmotivated, and even disinterested in life for weeks, months, or even years on end.
Whereas a regular case of “the blues” might get us down for a few days, depression can have crippling effects on a person’s life, affecting how they think, feel, behave, and function, and even affecting their ability to go on with their day-to-day life.
Symptoms of depression vary and may include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness or anxiety.
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, guilt worthlessness, and helplessness.
- Restlessness or strong irritability.
- Disinterest in hobbies and other activities.
- Fatigue, energy loss, and a lack of motivation.
- Chronic, untreatable physical symptoms like headaches, digestive problems, or pain.
- Difficulty remembering, concentrating, and making decision.
- Insomnia or oversleeping.
- Lack of appetite or overeating.
- Suicidal thoughts and/or tendencies
Depression can generally be categorized into 3 categories:
- Major depression: Patients with major depression usually experience at least 5 of the above symptoms consistently for at least 2 weeks. These symptoms will typically interfere with a person’s commitments (be it work or study) and his/her ability to eat and sleep. Major depressive episodes can be recurring or can take place suddenly following the death of a loved one, a breakup, or another life event. A major depressive episode can be so severe as to lead someone to attempt suicide.
- Persistent depressive disorder (PDD): PDD involves the same symptoms outlined above but usually persists for at least 2 years. Whereas major depression can be a relatively short burst of depression, PDD can be ongoing for long periods of time.
- Bipolar disorder: Bipolar, also sometimes referred to as manic-depression, is characterized by extremely severe mood swings, ranging from extreme highs (known as mania) to severe lows (depression).
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN STRESS AND DEPRESSION
While stress is a normal response to some of life’s curveballs, it can be extremely dangerous when not handled correctly and can lead to further health issues. In fact, both chronic and acute stress can lead to depression in vulnerable individuals who have problem dealing with stressful situations effectively.
Sustained or chronic stress has the ability to affect the chemical levels in our brains. For example, prolonged exposure to stress can cause chemical imbalances between cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone, and neurotransmitters like serotonin.
These imbalances have the ability to affect everything from mood and sex drive to sleep and appetite, which in turn can lead to depression in some people.
HOW CANNABIS CAN HELP
New research shows promise for cannabis’ ability to treat depression.
For example, a 2015 study showed that cannabis could help to restore some of the chemical imbalances in the brain caused by chronic stress.
Using a rat model, neuroscientists at the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions found that the levels of endocannabinoids (chemical compounds produced naturally by our body’s endocannabinoid system) in the brain can drop due to chronic stress.
Endocannabinoids have been shown to play an important role in managing a variety of physiological and mental processes, including appetite, pain, and anxiety. The fact that stress can hinder the production of these endocannabinoids could be one of the reasons it can lead to depression in susceptible individuals.
The researchers found that cannabis was an effective way to restore cannabinoid levels in the brain, and therefore suggest that cannabis could serve to alleviate some of the symptoms of depression and even stabilizing moods.
Depression or, to be exact, depressive episodes are also known to increase inflammation in the brain. New research suggests that some of the cannabinoids and terpenes found in cannabis can have anti-inflammatory effects, which could also help manage symptoms of the disease.
In 2014, scientists from Tel Aviv University found that low doses of THC reduce brain swelling. The study, also conducted on mice, used extremely low doses of cannabis that did not produce any psychoactive effects. This suggests that cannabis may be an effective way of treating neurodegenerative disease and even possibly the brain inflammation caused by depressive episodes.
Other studies also claim that cannabis is a neuroprotective plant that could help in the treatment of mental disorders.
Cannabis can also treat individual symptoms brought on by depression, such as insomnia, appetite disorders, or chronic pain.
Patients with depression commonly lack appetite, and experience trouble sleeping. Cannabis has already been shown in numerous studies to help treat both of these issues.
Treating these individual symptoms may also help alleviate the effect the condition has on an individual.
MORE RESEARCH IS NEEDED
Despite the fact that the legalization and medical cannabis movements have gained a lot of momentum over the past years, our understanding of this plant is still in its infancy.
However, as attitudes to cannabis use (both recreational and medical) change and legislation is updated to allow researchers to dig deeper into the science behind this plant and how it affects our bodies, our knowledge of how to utilize it will only grow.
The evidence above isn’t conclusive that cannabis is direct cure for depression. In fact, previous research even suggested that heavy cannabis users were more at risk of developing depression.
However, it is a good start in pointing us in the right direction on how this plant may help in the treatment of such powerful and strikingly common disease.