Does Weed Help With Depression?

By Irmanie Hemphill, MD, FAAFP
Medically reviewed
August 2, 2021

More than 264 million people worldwide live with depression.

Though psychological and pharmacological treatments can be highly effective at treating depression, nearly two of three people suffering with depression do not seek nor receive these treatments.

And when traditional treatments prove inaccessible or ineffective, many turn to marijuana. But does marijuana really help with depression?

In this article, I’ll describe the symptoms of depression and whether marijuana can improve or exacerbate these symptoms. I’ll also cover the components of marijuana, and whether certain types of marijuana help with anxiety and depression.

Finally, I’ll explain the risks when using marijuana for depression, and when it’s important to speak to a doctor about your treatment options.  

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Symptoms of Depression

Depression is a common illness worldwide and in the United States, affecting approximately 17.3 million American adults in a given year.

Though more prevalent in women than in men, it can affect people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. 

Depressive episodes can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the frequency and severity of symptoms.

In addition, healthcare providers will differentiate between depression in people with a history of manic episodes and depression in people without a history of manic episodes.

Though people with depression can experience similar symptoms, there are different types of depressive disorders, each with a unique set of symptoms.

Major depressive disorder (MDD)

MDD is the most commonly diagnosed form of depression.

An MDD diagnosis is often given when at least five of these nine symptoms persist for two weeks or longer, and present a significant change from previous behaviors:

  • Overwhelming feeling of sadness or a loss of interest and pleasure in usual activities
  • Decrease or increase in appetite
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation
  • Constant fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive and inappropriate guilt
  • Recurrent thoughts of death
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Cognitive difficulties

Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)

People with persistent depressive disorder experience a low, dark, or sad mood all day—on most days—for a period of at least two years (for adolescents, symptoms need only persist for one year for diagnosis).

If an individual with persistent depressive disorder experiences a symptom-free interval, it generally lasts less than two months. Persistent depressive disorder is categorized by having at least two of the following symptoms:

  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor concentration
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Feelings of hopelessness

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)

PMDD is a severe and sometimes disabling extension of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Symptoms of PMDD can be so severe that they disrupt a sufferer’s social life, work, and other daily activities.

Symptoms generally begin 10 days before the start of a menstrual period and continue for the first days of the period. Symptoms include:

  • Breast tenderness
  • Bloating
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in sleep and eating habits
  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Anxiety or tension
  • Extreme moodiness
  • Irritability or anger

Depressive disorder due to another medical condition

In some cases, medical conditions can trigger depressive episodes and symptoms.

In particular, endocrine and reproductive system disorders—such as hypothyroidism, diabetes, and Cushing’s syndrome—are commonly associated with depression and depressive symptoms. 

Adjustment disorder with depressed mood

Depressive symptoms can also be triggered by a stressful life change, like job loss or divorce.

In this case, symptoms can cause significant distress and impairment in functioning in the short-term. However, symptoms typically resolve within six months or when the stressor is removed.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

People with SAD experience MDD during a specific time of year, usually winter or the darker months of the year. 

Thankfully, most types of depression can be effectively treated with antidepressants, other prescription medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a combination of depression treatment modalities.

What are the Benefits of Marijuana?

Though marijuana is often used recreationally, there are some potential benefits of medical marijuana:

  • Pain management
  • Restoration of cannabinoid function and mood stabilization
  • Treatment for nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy
  • HIV-related weight loss

There has been limited clinical pain research on medical cannabis, but findings from early studies report positive results. In a study of 100 people conducted in 2014, people using marijuana for chronic pain experienced an average of 64% decrease in pain.

A few studies have also found that inhaling marijuana can help in the treatment of neuropathic pain. Still, existing research is mixed. Though some studies report positive results, other studies show that marijuana can exacerbate pain.

Further clinical research is yet to be done to determine the effectiveness of marijuana, especially on those with chronic pain, HIV, and cancer.

Similarly, the research on marijuana restoring endocannabinoid function is limited.

One study conducted on rats from 2015 found that the chemicals in cannabis may help restore endocannabinoid function, the chemical compounds in the brain connected to feelings of overall well-being, and alleviate symptoms of depression.

However, more research is needed to determine its effectiveness on alleviating depression in humans.

A small number of studies have also shown that marijuana can be helpful in treating nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy, as well as improving food intake in HIV patients.

Can Marijuana Cause Depression?

Experts aren’t sure whether the marijuana directly causes depression or not.

Existing research is unclear: Some studies found no increased likelihood of development of depression in people who use marijuana, while other evidence suggests that reducing marijuana use may reduce depressive symptoms. 

Though the evidence is inconclusive, many experts believe that the relationship between marijuana and depression isn’t necessarily causal.

Instead, many believe that it’s likely that people who already have depressive symptoms use marijuana as a coping or treatment strategy. 

Components of Marijuana

There are many strains of marijuana with different active compounds. The variety and strength of marijuana can vary dramatically depending on the source and quality of the product.

However, there are two main categories of chemical components in marijuana:

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC): THC is responsible for the psychoactive properties of marijuana, including the feeling of being high and euphoric effects.
  • Cannabidiol (CBD): The non-psychoactive component of marijuana. CBD is most often the component of the drug studied for the treatment of pain management, anxiety, and depression.

Does Marijuana Help with Anxiety?

As with research on whether marijuana helps with depression, existing research on marijuana’s effect on anxiety is limited and mixed.

While there is some preclinical evidence that CBD could be an effective treatment for generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, further research is needed. Few studies have investigated chronic CBD dosing.

Does THC Cause Anxiety?

Previous studies have shown that marijuana, specifically the THC component, can worsen mood disorders like anxiety or depression.

If you’re curious about whether marijuana could help or hurt your anxiety, speak with your healthcare provider to learn more about your options. 

Are Edibles Better for Anxiety and Depression?

There is little evidence that edible forms of marijuana are better for anxiety and depression.

In fact, because digestible forms of marijuana can delay the onset of effects, some people may consume greater than intended amounts of marijuana, causing adverse effects. 

Risks

Like with many alternative treatment options, there are some risks to using marijuana in treatment for depression.

Weed Dependency

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 30% of cannabis users will form a psychological dependence on the drug.

People who start using marijuana before age 18 are at an even greater risk of dependency. If you do become dependent, you may experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop use.

Psychiatric Disorders

In people with a predisposition for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses, using marijuna may trigger the expression of the disease.

Additionally, certain people at risk for psychosis may experience marijuana-inducuded psychosis, including hallucinations and delusions.

Amotivational Syndrome

Some people who use marijuana frequently may develop what some refer to as amotivational syndrome, an increased state of apathy, social withdrawal, and low-level functioning. 

Athletic Performance

Though it has long been assumed that cannabis use can have a negative impact on athletic performance, a systematic review from 2020 found that resting heart rate was the only physiological measure that was significantly impacted by marijuana.

On the other hand, there is no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug.

Is CBD Oil Good for Depression?

Some findings suggest that CBD may help alleviate the symptoms of depression, but more research is needed to understand whether CBD can be an effective treatment option for depression.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is marijuana a depressant?
Marijuana can have depressant, stimulant, and hallucinogenic effects. These effects will vary depending on the type, strain, and strength of marijuana being consumed.
Can smoking weed cause schizophrenia?
For those with a predisposition to schizophrenia, smoking marijuana can trigger an expression of the disease. People at risk for psychosis can also experience marijuana-induced psychosis.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Irmanie Hemphill, MD, FAAFP

Dr. Hemphill is an award winning primary care physician with an MD from Florida State University College of Medicine. She completed her residency at Halifax Medical Center.