In 2016 alone, an estimated 16.2 million US adults age 18 or older and 2.2 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 suffered from major depression.
Though psychotherapy and medication are the widely-accepted forms of treatment for major depression and related disorders, research indicates cannabidiol (CBD), a cannabis-derived compound, may have potential therapeutic effects for people suffering from depression.
Before we dive into the what and how of CBD, let’s first explore one of the most common mental illnesses in the US.
The symptoms and effects of depression.
Though the medical community and society at large have come a long way in terms of how mental illness is viewed, conditions including depression and anxiety are still stigmatized, dissuading many sufferers from seeking the medical attention they need. In fact, more than one-third of adults and twice as many adolescents never seek any form of treatment for depression. That is tragic.
We may use “depressed” and “anxious” in everyday language, but these medical conditions aren’t the typical or normal responses to life events. Though one’s environment or upbringing can provoke depression and anxiety, genetics and biology also play a role, meaning mental illness isn’t just a feeling one can “shake off”.
Major depression is often accompanied by significant impairments, or the inability to complete day-to-day activities or cope with significant life changes. People with depression may find the simplest tasks, such as speaking or doing the dishes, nearly impossible, a feat similar to scaling Mount Everest. One need only imagine the toll on their work schedule and social obligations.
Depression has a long list of symptoms, including:
- Feelings of prolonged sadness, anxiety, emptiness, and hopelessness
- Nagging feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, and loneliness
- Irritability and anger
- Restlessness or difficulty sitting still
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Fatigue, or unrelenting exhaustion
- Difficulty with concentration, decision-making, and memory recall
- Changes in appetite and weight
- Suicidal thoughts and tendencies
- Slow movement and/or speech
- Decreased libido, or sexual desire
- Frequent bouts of crying
- Chronic pain, headaches, cramps, and digestive issues
Depression is closely linked to stress, a physiological state that induces chronic high levels of certain stress hormones that promote inflammation throughout the body linked to cardiovascular and immune system dysfunction. Because of this, depression sufferers have a higher risk of heart attack and contracting infectious diseases, such as influenza or pneumonia.
People with depression may also cope with stress by overeating, leading to obesity-related diseases such as type-2 diabetes.
How can CBD help people with depression?
Cannabidiol is one of over 80 cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, CBD does not produce the feeling of being “high”.
CBD is usually sold as an extract in the form of tinctures, sprays, ointments, and liposomal-enhanced oils, such as Colorado Hemp Oil.
There is mounting scientific evidence suggesting CBD may be useful in the treatment of a wide array of conditions, including depression and anxiety, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, cancer, and chronic pain. Below we discuss several studies dealing specifically with CBD’s potential in the treatment of depression:
A review of several studies examining the potential anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects of CBD revealed cannabidiol may act on the 5-HT1A neuro-receptor, a subtype of serotonin receptor. 5-HT1A receptors are found in areas of the brain associated with mood, cognition, and memory.
The studies reviewed used animal models in which mice were subjected to stressful situations, such as swimming in a water tank from which there is no escape (forced swimming test), being forced into open spaces (elevated plus maze), and receiving electric shocks as a form of behavioral conditioning (Vogel Conflict Test). In most cases, mice dosed with CBD were more resilient under stress than those that were not.
One study even showed CBD had antidepressant-like effects in mice similar to the prescription antidepressant imipramine, an effect thought to be linked to activation of 5-HT1A receptors.
CBD and motivation
Another study examined the role of CBD on hedonic motivation, or the tendency of a person toward pleasurable versus negative or painful experiences. The study was conducted using genetically-engineered, depression-prone rats that were subjected to various tests and focused on CBD’s effects on anhedonia-like behavior.
Anhedonia, or apathy and the inability to feel pleasure, is a trademark symptom of depression. In rats, anhedonia may present as lack of movement and hesitation to explore their surroundings.
In the study, researchers conducted the novel object exploration (NOE) test, in which the rats could roam freely in an open space where an unfamiliar object was placed. Generally, these depressive-like rats exhibit avoidant, fear-based behaviors; however, the CBD-treated rats tended to explore their surroundings and venture up to the unfamiliar object without hesitation.
These findings suggest CBD may be useful in the treatment of clinical depression and other conditions associated with anhedonia.
Potential side effects of CBD.
Though doses up to 1,500 mg/day of CBD have been reported safe, individual tolerance levels will vary. Harsh side effects were rare, though the most common side effects reported by users are tiredness, diarrhea, and fluctuations in appetite and weight.
In some people, CBD can disrupt the breakdown of certain medications in the liver and may cause excessive drowsiness when used with other sleep-inducing supplements, like melatonin. Because each person is different, it is important to consult a physician before starting any health regimen, whether with natural or synthetic substances.