Evidence based

CBD and Depression: Current Research & Understanding

Depression is a common, debilitating condition. Can CBD oil be used to alleviate the symptoms of depression? What does the research say?

Article By
Justin Cooke , posted 2 months ago

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the world.

In the United States alone, more than 16 million people are diagnosed with major depressive disorder each year. Millions more are believed to have undiagnosed depression.

In this article, we discuss the causes of depression, and how CBD can help.

We go above and beyond the 50-year-old understanding, doctors employ when prescribing conventional antidepressant medications and discuss other causes — including inflammation, chronic stress, and nutritional deficiencies.

We’ll discuss exactly why CBD offers powerful anti-depressive effects — and how to use it properly.

  • Table of Contents

What is Depression?

Most people by now have at least heard of depression — but few people understand what this condition means.

Depression is complex and it’s difficult to pinpoint its causes.

Let’s go over a few causes that pertain to CBD.

There are Many Causes of Depression

There isn’t a single cause for depression. In most cases, it’s merely a symptom of other underlying medical conditions or unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices.

Causes of Depression May Include:

  1. Substance abuse
  2. Chronic stress
  3. Bereavement
  4. Medication side-effects
  5. Genetic diseases (such as Huntington’s Disease or multiple sclerosis)
  6. Nutritional deficiencies (including B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and protein).

The Severity of Depression is a Spectrum — Ranging From Mild to Severe and Everything in Between:

  • Mild depression — involving low-grade loss of interest or low motivation.
  • Moderate depression — involves a major loss in motivation and low energy, and may or may not interfere with daily responsibilities.
  • Severe depression — can include thoughts of suicide or complete loss of motivation.

Depending on the person — and the actual cause of the depression — severity and side-effects can be very different.

What are the Symptoms of Depression?

Although many conditions have depression listed as a symptom, depression is also a condition with its own set of symptoms.

Confusing, I know, but then again the human body is incredibly complex.

Depression tends to come in packages with a series of other symptoms.

Some of the Signs and Symptoms of Depression Include:

  • Sadness
  • Loss of interest in pleasure activities
  • Loss of motivation
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite
  • Apathy
  • Lack of ability to feel pleasure (anhedonia)
  • Irritability
  • Subservience (prostration)
  • Changes in habits

Can CBD Oil Treat Depression?

In short, most likely — but not directly.

Let me explain.

CBD oil is used to alleviate pain and inflammation and can be a reliable source of relaxation after a stressful day.

Interestingly, CBD owes this ability to its formidable anti-inflammatory benefits.

We’ll get into more about detail below, but inflammation is a fundamental underlying cause of depression.

By helping us get on top of systemic inflammation, and low-grade neuroinflammation — CBD goes a long way in alleviating chronic depression.

Pharmaceutical Treatments for Depression

Treating depression involves finding the cause.

Psychologists will usually identify if there are any signs of abuse, personal hardship, stressful events, substance abuse, or other causes of depression that may be at play.

Dieticians, nutritionists, and natural health therapists will look at the diet, and consider how the lifestyle of those affected factor into their depression.

Often, a diet and lifestyle change is enough to alleviate most symptoms of depression.

Doctors address depression as a condition of imbalance. They’ll give medications such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to counterbalance this.

1. MAOIs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors)

MAOIs are a class of pharmaceutical medications used for treating depression.

It involves inhibiting the enzyme (monoamine oxidase) that breaks down monoamine neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine).

By blocking this enzyme, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine takes longer to break down, and lingers in the neurons for longer periods.

If the cause of the depression is low serotonin or dopamine, this class of compounds is useful for boosting activity and alleviating symptoms. It won’t fix the problem, however, because as soon as the drug stops — everything goes back to normal. In some cases, we have rebounding drops in dopamine and serotonin — causing even more severe symptoms.

2. SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors)

SSRIs are the most common class of antidepressants used today.

Many believe that low serotonin levels are the leading cause of depression. Therefore, if there’s a way to target serotonin to boost its activity, we can alleviate the symptoms of depression.

A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor works to block serotonin from reabsorption and dissolution in the synapses of the brain.

This causes serotonin to build up outside the synapses and therefore boost overall mood.

It’s important to note that SSRIs don’t fix the cause of the low serotonin, and there’s a lot of evidence to support most cases of depression don’t involve a deficiency of serotonin. [4]. Instead, research now indicates that depression is the direct result of neuroinflammation.

This explains why SSRIs have less effect on people as inflammatory markers go up in their bloodstream.

3. Tricyclic Antidepressants

Tricyclic antidepressants are an older generation of antidepressant medications.

Newer versions like MAOIs and SSRIs have mostly replaced them.

They block the reabsorption of serotonin and norepinephrine, which makes them very similar to SSRI medications.

The difference is that tricyclics produce a variety of undesired effects on other neurotransmitters as well — which gives them unpredictable side effects.

Does Chemical Imbalance Cause Depression?

The suggestion that depression is the result of neurotransmitter dysfunctions, usually involving serotonin, is more than 50 years old.

Research has come a long way since this time, especially in the realm of neurology.

Although many doctors stick to the idea that low neurotransmitter levels cause depression, this is far oversimplified, and no explicit connections have been established between the two yet.

The evidence to support this hypothesis involves something related, called tryptophan depletion. In this process, the precursor for serotonin, tryptophan, is completely blocked, causing serotonin levels to decrease and depressive symptoms to begin appearing.

In healthy individuals, tryptophan depletion doesn’t cause depression. This only happens in people who have a predisposition for depressive symptoms [5].

You’re probably wondering what this means.

Let me explain.

Drugs that target serotonin levels are currently the primary treatment for depression, yet they don’t have a high success rate. This suggests there’s another cause for depression that we’re not looking at…

A Common Underlying Cause For Depression

Our half-century-old understanding of depression is only now starting to change.

More research is published each year suggesting the primary cause of depression is neuroinflammation.

This, in essence, means “inflammation of the brain”.

This makes a lot of sense because neuroinflammation is linked to lowered serotonin levels [6], poor nutrient availability in the brain, and increased oxidative damage.

If this was true, wouldn’t lowering inflammation alleviate the symptoms of depression?

Anti-Inflammatories for Depression

Looking outside of conventional medicine, which maintains its obsession with serotonin levels, there are other ways to address depression effectively.

In the world of botanical medicine, there are perhaps hundreds of treatments for depression, some of them can be traced down to neurotransmitter modulation, such as St. John’s wort or Catuaba, while others have a mechanism that is less clear (initially).

Ashwagandha, Rehmannia, ginseng, turmeric, and frankincense are all potent antidepressants with plenty of evidence to back up their use — yet none of them have a clear interaction with serotonin. The factor that connects these herbs is their strong anti-inflammatory profile.

There are other examples of reliable antidepressant herbs with anti-inflammatory effects, too many to list here.

Conventional medicine is catching on, and there are a few anti-inflammatory drugs on trial for the treatment of depression — some showing promising results.

Where do cannabis and CBD come into all of this?

CBD is arguably one of the most potent herbal anti-inflammatory compounds on earth.

What is CBD?

CBD stands for cannabidiol. It’s just one of around 60 different compounds known collectively as cannabinoids.

These are special chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant that interact with our endocannabinoid system. This system of receptors and hormones helps regulate many essential processes in the human body including neuro activation, hunger levels, and sexual function.

CBD is the main non-psychoactive cannabinoid. The other main cannabinoid — THC — is responsible for the psychoactive effects attributed to marijuana and the high it produces.

CBD is non-psychoactive and can be taken throughout the day without causing any changes in cognition. It’s used to alleviate pain, inflammation, and anxiety, and is even used to relieve many of the core symptoms involved with depression.

Using CBD for Depression

With over 60 different cannabinoids, hundreds of various terpenes, and numerous other chemicals, it’s difficult to pinpoint the mechanism in cannabis that treats depression.

CBD, however, is certainly one of the primary candidates, and many studies back it up for this application.

There are a few ways CBD can alleviate symptoms of depression, including increased serotonin levels, and pain reduction, however, the most significant by far is its role towards lowering inflammation.

CBD & Inflammation

There are hundreds of different inflammatory mediators in the human body.

The inflammation that results from conditions like arthritis, IBS, traumatic injuries, or autoimmunity is all different. Something that might work on one may not do anything for the others.

CBD is unique because it delivers its anti-inflammatory benefits on almost all forms of inflammation, including neuroinflammation associated with depression.

In total, CBD has been shown to block key inflammatory mediators including PGE2, COX (cyclooxygenase), free radical production, and nitric oxide.  [7]

This makes it useful for lowering general inflammation throughout the body, including the gut, the skin, cardiovascular system, and the brain.

This is considered the main therapeutic mechanism behind CBD’s antidepressant properties and many of its other common uses.

Other Antidepressive Effects of CBD

There are a few ways CBD may be useful for treating symptoms of depression.

In Total, the Effects of CBD on Depression May Include:

  • Fights inflammation
  • Boosts our ability to maintain homeostasis
  • Protects us from oxidative damage
  • Increases the activity of GABA in the brain
  • Supports serotonin and dopamine balance

What the Research Says About CBD for Depression

Many scientific research studies provide evidence that CBD can alleviate the symptoms and physiological processes involved with depression.

A) Animal Studies

Early animal studies involving rats found that CBD was able to inhibit the reuptake of serotonin at the synapses [1]. This is a common mechanism of pharmaceutical antidepressants for treating depression.

One of the main ways we test how substances are used for alleviating symptoms of depression in animals is something called the “forced swimming test”.

Mice are either kept in an environment designed to make them feel happy or depressed (social isolation, no mental stimulation, etc.), then given the substance in question.

The mice are forced to swim by placing them in a container filled with water. The test is designed to have a safe space in the middle of the container that the rats can stand on safely if they find it.

Depressed mice tend to find the hidden safe space, and stay there — unmotivated to find a means of escape.

Non-depressed rats, however, almost always seek out a way to escape, leaving the safe space periodically to explore the sides and corners of the container in an attempt to escape. They’re much more hopeful and motivated.

There have been a few studies looking at the effects of CBD extracts in mice using this test.

In another study published in 2011, mice were given either a 15, 30 or 60 mg/kg dose of CBD or placebo and forced to swim. All mice given doses of CBD had significantly fewer signs of depression than mice given the placebo, suggesting potent antidepressant effects of CBD. [2].

Other studies using the predator and prey test (exposing the mice to a predator to see if it freezes or not) found that mice treated with CBD froze fewer times when exposed to danger [3].

B) Human Studies

The most extensive study regarding CBD and depression to date wasn’t investigating CBD used for treating depression; rather, they wanted to see if cannabis causes depression [7].

The study involved more than over 45,000 participants in Sweden. The researchers concluded the study stating that:

After control for confounding factors and especially markers of disturbed behavior during childhood, there was no increased risk of future depression among cannabis users at age 18 to 20. With a large number of cases and control for important background factors, we believe our study adds to previous findings supporting the hypothesis that cannabis use does not increase the risk of depression”.

The final statement says it all; “cannabis use does not increase the risk of depression”.

Outside of this study, there have been few studies investigating the direct ability for cannabis, and CBD to treat depression. Research is continually advancing on this front, and we expect to see more research asking this question in the coming years.

It’s important to keep in mind that the connection between inflammation and depression is only now considered a serious hypothesis. There’s still a lot more research to be had in the upcoming years.

How to Use CBD for Depression

So, how can I incorporate CBD oil into my health routine to alleviate symptoms of depression?

The key to CBD for something as complex as depression is to make sure you use it in combination with other diet and lifestyle changes.

Performing activities that help to reduce stress, increase antioxidant protection and lower inflammation is going to go a long way in alleviating the symptoms of depression.

It’s also important to always consult with your doctor before starting CBD oil if you have depression, especially if you’re currently taking other antidepressant medications.

1. Select the Right Dose of CBD

Finding the right dose of CBD can be a challenge because everyone responds differently to its effects.

We’ve outlined a guide to finding the right CBD dose depending on your weight and strength level of the CBD oil.

If you’re just starting, we recommend aiming for the lower end of the spectrum and building up to the higher doses.

Most of the studies done on CBD for depression use very high doses.

2. Use High-Quality CBD Oil

Whenever using CBD oil for something serious like depression, it’s important that you always choose the highest quality products possible.

There are a lot of CBD oils on the market, and to be honest, most of them are of poor quality.

We always recommend checking out our guide for the best CBD Oils.

3. Use CBD Oil Alongside Diet & Lifestyle Changes

This is the most critical step.

Many other factors are involved with depression, including how we handle stress, and what foods we’re eating.

Most people in the modern world lack the mental tools needed to manage stress effectively — and it’s no secret that modern humans tend to have a terrible diet.

When we allow stress to take control of our lives and eat foods that promote inflammation and nutrient deficiencies, depression often follows. Therefore, it’s crucial that we take measures to lower the causes of our stress, work on ways to increase our ability to endure stress when it happens and optimize our diet to reduce inflammation.

  • Practice meditation
  • Go for a walk in nature
  • Ensure you’re allowing 8 hours of sleep each night
  • Listen to relaxing music when feeling stressed
  • Write a list of the causes of your stress and make a plan to eliminate/deal with them
  • Visit a therapist or psychologist to work through difficult causes of stress

Dietary Considerations to Minimize Depression Symptoms

  • Include at least half a plate of fresh vegetables with every meal
  • Avoid refined, processed foods
  • Avoid eating on the go, sit down and spend time eating and digesting your food
  • See a nutritionist to identify and eliminate any potential food allergies
  • Drink tea instead of coffee

Final Thoughts: Using CBD Oil for Depression

CBD oil is an excellent tool for alleviating symptoms of depression, but it won’t fix the problem on its own.

It’s great to get the ball rolling and relieve many uncomfortable symptoms of the condition. For the best results, make sure you combine CBD with other diet and lifestyle changes. Start by finding the source of depression and eliminate it.

The source can come in many forms, but it’s often a mix of inflammatory processes (poor diet, autoimmunity, smoking, drug or alcohol use, etc.), and high stress.

In combination with other techniques, CBD can be a profoundly useful tool for fighting depression.


References

  1. Banerjee, S. P., Snyder, S. H., & Mechoulam, R. A. P. H. A. E. L. (1975). Cannabinoids: influence on neurotransmitter uptake in rat brain synaptosomes. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 194(1), 74-81.
  2. Réus, G. Z., Stringari, R. B., Ribeiro, K. F., Luft, T., Abelaira, H. M., Fries, G. R., … & Crippa, J. A. (2011). Administration of cannabidiol and imipramine induces antidepressant-like effects in the forced swimming test and increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels in the rat amygdala. Acta neuropsychiatrica, 23(5), 241-248.
  3. R de Mello Schier, A., P de Oliveira Ribeiro, N., S Coutinho, D., Machado, S., Arias-Carrión, O., A Crippa, J., … & C Silva, A. (2014). Antidepressant-like and anxiolytic-like effects of cannabidiol: a chemical compound of Cannabis sativa. CNS & Neurological Disorders-Drug Targets (Formerly Current Drug Targets-CNS & Neurological Disorders), 13(6), 953-960.
  4. Cowen, P. J., & Browning, M. (2015). What has serotonin to do with depression?. World Psychiatry, 14(2), 158-160.
  5. Smith, K. A., Fairburn, C. G., & Cowen, P. J. (1997). Relapse of depression after rapid depletion of tryptophan. The Lancet, 349(9056), 915-919.
  6. Wichers, M. C., Koek, G. H., Robaeys, G., Verkerk, R., Scharpe, S., & Maes, M. (2005). IDO and interferon-α-induced depressive symptoms: a shift in hypothesis from tryptophan depletion to neurotoxicity. Molecular psychiatry, 10(6), 538.
  7. Pellati, F., Borgonetti, V., Brighenti, V., Biagi, M., Benvenuti, S., & Corsi, L. (2018). Cannabis sativa L. and nonpsychoactive cannabinoids: their chemistry and role against oxidative stress, inflammation, and cancer. BioMed research international, 2018.
  8. Manrique-Garcia, E., Zammit, S., Dalman, C., Hemmingsson, T., & Allebeck, P. (2012). Cannabis use and depression: a longitudinal study of a national cohort of Swedish conscripts. BMC psychiatry, 12(1), 112.

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