The medical benefits of cannabis are often discussed for physiological applications such as chronic pain, inflammation, arthritis, and even cancer (McCormick et al 2017). However, cannabis can also help manage the symptoms of psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD (Hand et al 2016). There is solid clinical evidence and moving anecdotal accounts of how cannabis helps people improve their everyday mental health.
The psychological benefits of cannabis depend first on the primary strain utilized and second on the combination of cannabinoids and other naturally occurring components of the cannabis plant (McCormick et al 2017; Hand et al 2016. The two primary cannabinoids discussed for their medical applications are THC (delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol), as well as hybrids between them.
The psychoactive ‘high’ associated with cannabis is found in THC and is typically dominant in the Sativa strain, which has general effects of alertness, increased energy, uplifting or euphoric sensations, and appetite stimulation – making it potentially useful for managing the symptoms of depression (Dowsett et al 2017). THC is also observed to impair memory and induce sleep in the short-term, and so is at times prescribed for post-traumatic stress disorder (Sadhir 2016). However, THC heavy strains may cause feelings of anxiety, disorientation, and intoxication in some patients (Wachtel et al 2002).
The other major cannabinoid is CBD, which is non-psychoactive and mild, often prescribed for people would benefit from medical cannabis but want to avoid the consciousness-altering effects of THC (McCormick et al 2017). Indeed, CBD has proven sufficiently mild that it was successfully used in treatments with children, and is increasingly used to treat anxiety (Hand et al 2016). CBD is typically found to be stronger in the Indica strain, with effects including pain relief, relaxation, and sleepiness (McCormick et al 2017; Wachtel et al 2002).
Already we can see that the mental health applications of cannabis are delicate. For instance, a person experiencing depression may benefit from taking THC, but if they also experience anxiety, it may exacerbate those symptoms. This is why hybrid strains or those with controlled levels of THC or CBD are cultivated and prescribed.
Two 2017 meta-analyses reviewed over 10,000 studies published since 1999 and found clinical evidence that controlled cannabis use can improve the symptoms of anxiety (particularly in individuals with social anxiety disorders), PTSD, and depression, while other studies illustrate possible benefits for those who experience ADD/ADHD, OCD, bipolar disorder, and stress (McCormick et al 2017; Dowsett et al 2017; Hand et al 2016).
This is also reflected in anecdotal accounts. For instance, a young woman explained how she uses cannabis to mitigate the symptoms of severe panic and anxiety attacks. Cannabis has been found to aid in managing and treating depression historically and in recent studies, which was made clear in a case in which a man used it to cope with a depression he had fought for 30 years, saying “for the first time, I was able to take a step back from the immediacy of my problems and relax”. A 2017 study in Canada found that teens sometimes turn to cannabis to manage stress and anxiety. At the same time, that report points out that cannabis use – particularly without the supervision of a medical professional – does have risks.
Cannabis has never been definitively linked to an overdose death and is considered broadly safer than drugs like alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and heroin, but there are risks – such as respiratory issues, dependency, and depressive or bipolar episodes – with unsupervised and excessive recreational use, particularly through smoking (McCormick et al 2017; Dowsett et al 201).
Overall, when used for medical purposes and under medical supervision, cannabis is a safe, natural alternative to many pharmaceutical treatments. One person told a story of how she used cannabis to wean herself off of antidepressants and in the process lost 80lbs, no longer suffers from joint pain or gastrointestinal disorders (caused by the antidepressants), and has overcome her depression.
Current users of cannabis for medical purposes and those interested in pursuing or learning more about it should remember that cannabis, like any form of medication, requires supervision, a slow approach, and observation of effects (Sadhir 2016).
To understand more about cannabis for medical purposes and how you can safely use it to improve your quality of life, take a look at the resources and services offered at Hello Cannabis. Our team of patient coordinators, researchers, and medical professionals are ready to offer no-cost and no-pressure help.
Dowsett, L.E. et al. (2017). Cannabis Evidence Series: An Evidence Synthesis. Calgary: Government of Alberta.
Hand, A., Blake, A., Kerrigan, P., Samuel, P., Friedberg, J. (2016). History of Medical Cannabis. Journal of Pain Management, 9(4), 387-394.
McCormick, M. et al. (2017). The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. Washington: The National Academies Press.
Sadhir (2016). Pharmacology of Cannabis. Journal of Pain Management, 9(4), 375-379.
Wachtel, S. et al (2002). Comparison of the Subjective Effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol and marijuana in humans. Psychopharmacology, 161(4), 331-339.