Increasingly, research into cannabidiol (CBD), a natural compound found in cannabis, shows promise for its potential benefits in treating depression.
More than just a “case of the blues,” depression is a serious problem for many people. Research and anecdotal evidence have shown that using CBD for depression may be an effective alternative treatment.
What is depression?
As we mentioned, depression is more than feeling a “bit down.” Classified as a mood disorder, someone who is depressed experiences feelings of sadness, as well as a loss of interest in normal daily life.
If you are depressed, you may have difficulty participating in everyday tasks and maintaining personal interactions.
Something as simple as getting out of bed becomes a significant challenge for you. Depression isn’t dismissed with a stern internal “talking to.” The lethargy and unhappiness can last for weeks, even months or years.
While important life events—divorce, job loss, or bereavement—may lead to the onset of depression, they are not in and of themselves direct causes of depression. The difference here is the persistence of your depressive episode.
Effects of depression
Typically considered a mood disorder, new information suggests that depression may also affect your body’s and brain’s physical structures.
The latest research shows that specific brain regions can decrease in people who are depressed. Researchers debate the causes of brain shrinkage in people with depression and whether depression causes the shrinkage and, if so, how much is the shrinkage attributable to depression.
Currently, studies show that depression affects several areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, frontal lobes, prefrontal cortex, thalamus, and amygdala. The extent of the shrinkage appears to be linked to the severity and length of the depressive episode.
Depression can cause brain inflammation, which in turn can lead to brain cell death and complications, such as loss of neurotransmitter function and neuroplasticity.
Brain inflammation is also responsible for the shrinkage mentioned above. Taken together, that has implications for brain development, learning, memory, and mood.
Depression is also linked to reduced oxygen in the body, possibly as a result of breathing changes. The reasons are poorly understood, as is the order in which these effects occur. At the cellular level, hypoxia (insufficient oxygen) impacts specific immune cells.
The combined and interconnected effects of depression on your body and brain highlights the seriousness of a depressive disorder for your physical and emotional wellbeing.
Depression and serotonin levels
Serotonin helps to regulate mood. The serotonin hypothesis, at its most basic, proposes that reduced activity along serotonin pathways is a pathophysiological cause of depression, and research supports that idea.
As a biochemical neurotransmitter, serotonin is a mood regulator found throughout your body, especially in the intestinal tract. Genetic factors, poor metabolic function, and digestive problems can impair food absorption and breakdown, which reduces your body’s ability to create serotonin and increase those levels. Hormone changes can also cause low serotonin levels, leading to neurotransmitter imbalances.
Because of unreliable clinical findings and difficulty in correlating changes in serotonin activity for mood management, the serotonin hypothesis has taken on a conspiracy theory-like status: profitable sales of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
CBD can help alleviate depression
In people (and all mammals), cannabinoid receptors are part of the endocannabinoid system that is found throughout your body. These receptors, CB1 and CB2, play an essential role in regulating mood, as well as appetite, pain perception, and memory.
Cannabidiol (CBD), one of two primary phytocannabinoids found in cannabis, occurs naturally in marijuana and hemp. Not dissimilar to the cannabinoids found in cannabis, endocannabinoids are produced by your body.
CBD doesn’t boost your serotonin levels directly. Instead, it appears to affect your brain’s chemical receptors, primarily the CB1 receptor, and how it responds to the serotonin that’s already available.
The thinking goes that CBD activates CB1 receptors to create more receptors to capture the available serotonin. Given its impact on serotonin regulation, CBD for depression has potential as an alternative treatment.
CBD supports and stimulates regulation of the central nervous system in the way it affects the endocannabinoid system. Those endocannabinoids bind to receptors to enhance serotonin’s effects to improve mood. While CBD doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors, it does simulate the effects of serotonin, increasing receptivity.
Taking CBD for depression also seems to have some benefits when compared to traditional antidepressant medications. It can take as much as 6 weeks for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to work effectively.
CBD takes effect on depression quickly, and the resulting impact is sustained. It also has fewer side effects compared to many antidepressant medications.
Researchers believe CBD has potential for depression treatment because of its positive impact on your brain’s serotonin receptors. Current research suggests that CBD doesn’t directly boost serotonin levels; it influences synapses that respond to and release serotonin already in your system.
Studies on CBD and depression are promising.
A 2018 review found that multiple studies in animal models have shown the antidepressant qualities of CBD. Because CBD works indirectly to activate endocannabinoid receptors. That indirect action could mean CBD is unlikely to become habit-forming or addictive.
In another study from 2018, researchers indicated that CBD has promise as a fast-acting antidepressant. Antidepressants work by amplifying neurotransmission of serotonin in the hippocampus.
Also, the limonene terpene increases dopamine levels via the same neurotransmitter. Limonene also seems to raise serotonin levels in the prefrontal cortex. In a very small Japanese human trial of clinically depressed patients, 3/4 were able to discontinue their antidepressants. Linalool, another terpene found in cannabis, is also known for its antidepressant effects.
Within the brain, CBD imitates serotonin by binding and activating your body’s 5-HT1A serotonin receptors — that ability is probably a major contributor to CBD’s anti-anxiety properties. These effects have contributed to the view that CBD holds potential as a tool for addiction recovery.
Experimental evidence in current clinical trials noted CBD’s effectiveness for anxiety, which can be an important contributory cause of depression. Pre-clinical experiments on rodents have shown promise, relieving depression in rats. Another study found that just one dose of CBD rapidly affected depression in mice and rats, lasting as much as 7 days post-treatment.
In addition, in a study of depression in mice, CBD’s antidepressant qualities were more effective when combined with an SSRI.
Potentially, using CBD for depression shows a lot of promise.
If you suffer from depression, it’s essential to talk to your doctor about CBD before taking it, because it can impact the effectiveness of antidepressant medications. Still, given its non-addictiveness and minimal side effects, we think it’s worth investigating the benefits of CBD for depression.