While there has been plenty of anecdotal evidence of people using cannabis to help treat their depression, would-be researchers have been historically hamstrung by the federal government’s designation of cannabis as a Schedule I drug. Despite the extreme restrictions on cannabis research, the University of New Mexico published a study in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine last month that investigated the efficacy of cannabis as a treatment for depression titled “The Effectiveness of Cannabis Flower for Immediate Relief from Symptoms of Depression.”
Clinical depression is rampant in the United States, with a staggering one in five adults reporting that they suffer from its symptoms. It is estimated that 16.2 million Americans have had at least one major depressive episode in any one year. Physical symptoms of depression can include chronic pain, increased inflammation, fatigue, unintended weight loss or gain, and gastrointestinal distress. If left untreated, depression can cause a ripple effect that increases the risk of even more serious health conditions, like heart attack or stroke.
The study, led by Jacob Vigil and Sarah See Stith, utilized data collected by the Releaf App—a mobile application that helps users keep track of their cannabis consumption, and better monitor its effects.
Participants were required to indicate the potency and strain of the flower they were using, as well as the combustion method they used to consume it. The intensity of participants’ depression symptoms was ranked on a 0-10 scale before the time of consumption, and then again immediately after cannabis was consumed.
After reviewing a sample of 5,876 reported outcomes from 1,819 unique individuals, researchers found that on average symptoms of depression improved nearly four points immediately after cannabis use.
One of the studies’ more interesting findings was that cannabis with higher levels of THC was reported to be more effective at relieving symptoms. According to Vigil, “Cannabis flower with relatively high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC is particularly associated with immediate reductions in the intensity of depressive feelings.”
However, the benefits of increased THC seem to level off after around 10 percent, with not much variance in the 10 to 35 percent range. In contrast, higher levels of cannabidiol (CBD) made seemingly little impact on symptom relief.
Another fascinating result was that neither combustion method, nor the type of strain (indica, sativa, or hybrid) seemed to play any role in the level of efficacy.
These findings seem particularly relevant when compared with the traditional pharmaceuticals used to treat depression. Conventional treatments, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), don’t begin working right away. For many patients suffering from depression, relief is something they need immediately, not in the four to six weeks it takes an SSRI to begin having an effect.
It’s also worth noting that the side-effects of these medications can be quite severe, and include such things as suicide ideation and anorgasmia.
With depression afflicting so many Americans, it’s likely that somebody close to you is battling with it right now. That was the case with Vigil, who undertook the research project partly for personal reasons.
Vigil explained, “One of the major reasons I wanted to conduct this study was to help find answers for a close colleague who confided in me that their loved one was struggling with severe depression and heavy cannabis use. My colleague didn’t know if cannabis contributed to the depression or if their loved one was using cannabis to self-medicateWhile the former possibility has yet to gain unequivocal support, our study definitively shows that the Cannabis plant effectively and quickly reduces feelings of depression in the vast majority of people.”
The Need for More Research
Anecdotal evidence and small studies like this one show that more research is needed to better understand the effects of cannabis use on symptoms of depression. It is nearly impossible for researchers to legally obtain cannabis to perform studies while it remains a Schedule I drug under federal law.