More than two-thirds of US states agree that medical marijuana is useful for helping a variety of chronic ailments, from cancer to joint pain to cachexia and more. But as we venture farther into research on the medicinal benefits of marijuana, the medical community is finding that the cannabinoids in marijuana can also help with select psychological symptoms.
The most well-known use for marijuana as a psychoactive treatment for mental ailments is PTSD. But as state conditions lists expand, we see anxiety and depression start to pop up. So, what’s the evidence behind the claim that medical marijuana is an effective treatment for affect disorders? And what’s the biology?
The Chemistry of Affective Disorders
Distinct from mood disorders, affective disorders are adverse dysregulations in how people think and feel. This can include sleep disturbances, hopelessness, hyperactivity, panic – starting to sound familiar? Generalized anxiety and depression fall under this umbrella because while these symptoms may affect mood, they aren’t necessarily anything to do with mood irregularities.
The culprit behind most affective and major mood disorders are neurotransmitters – the biggest two players being serotonin and dopamine. Too much, too little, or an inability to process either one can cause a disturbance in mood. That’s why typical psychoactive treatments for anxiety and depression are SSRI’s and MAOI’s, which help the body keep those good chemicals swimming along for longer, improving affect regulation.
Major mood disorders are a little different, as there are more chemical imbalances at play and sometimes structural differences in different parts of the brain. But all kinds of affect and mood disorders have a genetic and environmental component, both of which are still poorly understood.
How the THC & CBD in Medical Marijuana Help Depression & Anxiety
So, what does any of this have to do with medical marijuana? First off – did you know that our brains already produce cannabinoids? These compounds aren’t foreign to how our brain functions and communicates; in fact, our endocannabinoids play an important part in how we feel in daily life. If your body isn’t producing enough, or something suppresses that production, you end up with depression or anxiety symptoms.
It follows, then, that adding cannabis to your body via medical marijuana pills, tinctures, edibles, or concentrates, can help restore your body’s levels of endocannabinoids, reducing those anxious or depressive symptoms.
One recent study treated depression caused by chronic stress with medical marijuana and found participants reported lessened symptoms upon incorporating MMJ into their treatment regimen. In another study on the link between marijuana and depression, participants reported short-term symptom relief, but no lasting change in the long-term, suggesting medical marijuana may function best as a supplement to cognitive behavioral therapy and SSRI’s.
It’s important to caution that while medical marijuana may help treat affect disorders, people suffering from disorders with psychotic components, such as schizophrenia or bipolar I, might have adverse reactions to the psychoactive in marijuana (THC). THC can trigger psychosis, dissociative episodes and mania.
While anecdotal evidence for medical marijuana’s use in treating anxiety and depression may still outweigh the clinical evidence, the implications of incorporating MMJ into standard psychological treatment methods are intriguing to doctors and mental health professionals alike.