When we hear all the time how good marijuana is for things like depression, anxiety, insomnia, appetite etc, we just kind of assume that it’s a quick, simple, and foolproof treatment. Smoke a joint, and all of your problems go away, right?
Well, not quite. Even though it is true that weed and depression share an important relationship both chemically and physiologically, there is actually a lot more going on at the molecular level than one would expect. And also, as many of you who suffer from depression may very well know, cannabis is not always the perfect, magical treatment. Sometimes, in fact, it can seem to actually worsen symptoms in select individuals.
In this article, we’ll explain the slightly “complicated” relationship between marijuana and depression, and talk about some things you should probably know before assuming that the herb is a one-stop-fix-all miracle drug.
Weed and Depression: What you need to know
Contrary to what you may hear or read about online, depression is actually an extremely complex and complicated disorder that involves many dozens of components integrating and functioning together at the molecular level within the central nervous system.
On a medical basis, the simplest way to “describe” depression might be to label it as a disorder or deficiency of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Along with serotonin and oxytocin, dopamine is what’s been labeled as a “bliss,” or “pleasure” molecule. All of those feelings of happiness, joy, and pleasure that we get through the human experience (i.e. things like eating, sex, getting a job promotion, etc) are thought to be directly related to the activity of dopamine in the brain. In other words, when dopamine levels are high, we’re happy. When they’re low, we’re depressed.
Now granted, that is an extremely basic way of putting it. There is certainly much more going on than that. At the core of things, though, that’s essentially what’s going on.
As such, one would assume that since marijuana works so well at combating depression (as well as other psychological disorders like anxiety, psychosis, insomnia, etc), it would be directly involved in or influential upon dopamine activity.
As it turns out, though, that’s not exactly the case.
Rather, it’s believed that weed works more to relieve symptoms of depression by acting on an endocannabinoid molecule called anandamide. If you’re unaware of what the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is, it’s basically a complex network of naturally-occurring neurotransmitters and receptors that function together to aid in all sorts of human behaviors and emotions. Among other things, the ECS has been proven to help relieve symptoms caused by cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, insomnia, psoriasis, and much more.
Moreover, each and every one of us has these anandamide endocannabinoids as well as their receptors (namely the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors) in our bodies – regardless of whether we’ve ever smoked marijuana or not. The super interesting thing is that the chemically active cannabinoids in marijuana, called phytocannabinoids, are nearly identical in structure to anandamide. This is exactly why marijuana is able to provide relief for such a huge range of medical conditions and ailments – it basically works to supplement the entire endocannabinoid system, which has been described as “…perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”
However, what most people don’t realize is that endocannabinoids (and phytocannabinoids from marijuana, for that matter) don’t work the same on everyone. In fact, in select individuals, they can actually work to do the exact opposite of relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Some Genetically Predisposed People Have an Enzyme that Deactivates Anandamide
Even though each and every one of us has naturally-occurring anandamide molecules (and their respective receptors), what a lot of people don’t realize is that 1-in-5 people carry an active enzyme that works to deactivate the molecule.
For example, you know those people that, instead of chilling out and becoming happy when they smoke weed, they freak out and become paranoid? Well, those are the people who are genetically predisposed to enzyme-based anandamide (and THC) deactivation.
The specific enzyme, called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), is genetic and believed to be active in about 20% of the population. For these unfortunate individuals, they are unable to really experience either the soothing recreational “highs” or the therapeutic medicinal benefits of marijuana.
In fact, individuals with the active FAAH enzyme are more likely to have counterproductive effects when ingesting high-THC marijuana. That is, rather than receiving alleviation from their depression when smoking or consuming weed (or edibles, concentrates, etc), they may end up experiencing panic attacks, bouts of heightened anxiety or even paranoia instead.
That being said, however, the recent emergence of CBD and CBD oil for depression and anxiety may prove to be an absolute miracle for these unfortunate individuals, as it has a structurally different shape than both anandamide and THC, which means that it performs different functions at the molecular level.
There is still a lot to learn about the activity and effects of CBD on human psychological disorders, but dozens of studies have already been published that showcase its positive influence on things like psychosis, anxiety, and yes, even depression.
Moreover, CBD and CBD-based products have been booming in popularity because unlike “traditional” marijuana, they do not get you high – even though they are 100% naturally-occurring compounds that come straight from the cannabis plant, they do not have any known psychoactive effects. Thus, it is believed that individuals who suffer from heightened anxiety after smoking weed will receive much better therapeutic results when using CBD, which is available as an oil, edible, topical, or concentrate (and actually, some weed strains have been specifically bred to contain almost pure CBD and no THC).
The “Biphasic Effect” Can Also Influence Marijuana and Depression
Another factor that can affect marijuana and depression is something called the biphasic effect. Basically, the term “biphasic” means that marijuana can have two totally different outcomes, depending on the amount consumed.
For example, while a small dose of weed or cannabis edible may prove to be super effective for one individual, a higher dose in that same individual may prove to do the exact opposite (i.e. induce anxiety and discomfort) – even if they are not genetically predisposed to the FAAH enzyme.
This comes down to the fact that the therapeutic range of marijuana is actually quite small. Even though most casual and recreational users smoke or ingest as much of it as they can with the aim to get super duper stoned, they’re actually not taking full advantage of the herb’s medicinal benefits.
And actually, when the brain is overwhelmed with THC (like it is when people smoke six bowls in one sitting), it actually signals for the central nervous system to deactivate the production of cannabinoid receptors, which is not good — at least if you’re trying to use it for relief of medical symptoms.
This brings us to another point altogether, which is the relatively unknown act of microdosing marijuana for depression.
Microdosing Weed for Depression (and Other Symptoms)
We won’t go too much into this topic here in this article (as we’ve already covered the essentials of microdosing in other articles), but basically microdosing is exactly what it sounds like – consuming small (even minute) amounts of weed at a time, rather than inhaling volumes of smoke that are large enough to knock out an elephant.
As far as actual numbers, it can be difficult to gauge exactly what is meant by a “microdose.” Simply enough, though, it is regarded as being at least a third of what you might normally smoke or ingest on any given day.
For example, instead of smoking an entire joint (even a small sized one) a proper microdose might entail taking just one single hit off it. Contrary to what a lot of people might think and believe, this is actually more than enough to instigate the physiological benefits of cannabis.
Microdosing for depression works on one very simple principle that is known to be true of marijuana – the fact the body only produces a certain amount of cannabinoid receptors at a time. Like we mentioned earlier, when you go and get totally stoned, you are actually overwhelming your central nervous system with the active ingredients of cannabis. While this can be super fun, it is actually interpreted by the brain as completely “unnatural,” and so it responds by telling neurotransmitter receptors to stop being synthesized.
In order to take full advantage of the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, including it’s effects on the symptoms of depression, we want to make sure that our nervous system is producing receptors at the highest rate possible. As such, research has showed that this is achieved through microdosing, rather than “macrodosing” (i.e. consuming lots at a time.
Final Thoughts on Marijuana and Depression
While marijuana for depression is certainly an extremely viable therapy that has helped countless thousands of individuals, it’s actually a little more complicated than meets the eye at first glance.
For one, not everyone has the same exact chemical reaction to weed (specifically THC). This has to do with the presence and activity of an enzyme called FAAH, which works to counteract “normal” behavioral and medical responses to the herb.
Additionally, using weed for depression is largely dependent on the act of microdosing, which, simply put, involves manipulating the biphasic effects of cannabis in order to receive its maximum possible benefits. Marijuana can potentially be a wonder drug as far as the treatment of depression, but it definitely pays to know what exactly is going on, rather than just making casual assumptions.