How Medical Marijuana Can Affect Your Mental Health
by Dr. Nicola Davies
Due to burgeoning interest in medical marijuana and its applications, studies are being conducted on the possible use of marijuana in treating mental disorders. Favourable results have been seen with certain strains of medical marijuana for the treatment of anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders, although negative results have emerged for paranoid schizophrenia and certain psychoses. Tests have also shown that medical marijuana may exacerbate the side-effects of some prescription antipsychotics, but enhance the benefits of others.
It appears that researchers in the U.S. are politically inhibited from conducting the extensive further testing required to clarify these contradictory findings. However, medical marijuana is being recommended to some people who suffer from mental health issues on a case by case basis.
First, the good news:
There are several common myths about marijuana: one of the biggest assumptions is that all medical marijuana is the same. This is not the case. Different strains that focus on specific phytocannabinoids have been produced to stimulate different responses to an individual’s particular needs. For instance, a prescription for Alzheimer’s disease wouldn’t be recommended for anxiety. The high concentration of the phytocannabinoid Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for an Alzheimer’s patient could promote an elevated heart rate in a sufferer of anxiety, where the phytocannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) would more likely be recommended for mood disorders. CBD phytocannabinoids activate the neurotransmitters that promote a sense of calm and temper the elevated psychotic levels THC can sometimes stimulate. THC in medical marijuana is beneficial for an Alzheimer’s patient, as it has been found to prevent progression of the disease.
THC has been the focus of many studies, with conflicting results that imply the need for further research. A double-blind study conducted at the University of Cologne in Germany assessed 39 patients who were hospitalized for psychotic episodes due to diagnosed schizophrenia. Nineteen of the patients were treated with amisulpride (not yet approved in the U.S.); the other 20 were given extracted CBD without the THC phytocannabinoid. It was found that, “Not only was [CBD] as effective as standard antipsychotics, but it was also essentially free of the typical side-effects seen with antipsychotic drugs.”
Often, antipsychotic drugs can have devastating side-effects such as permanent movement disorders, lack of motivation, and inability to find pleasure in life. Weight gain and higher risks for diabetes are also drawbacks to the newer generation of antipsychotics. In the University of Cologne study, movement problems and weight gain were observed in the patients taking amisulpride, but not CBD. Of course, more research needs to be conducted and there are some problems with using CBD. For instance, it is expensive to extract from the marijuana plant itself, marijuana is still considered an illegal substance in the U.S., and as CBD is a natural compound, it is difficult for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate. There is a clear need for further research on medical marijuana. Indeed, there are over 80 cannabinoids that can affect the neurotransmitters in the human endocannabinoid system, and THC and CBD comprise only two of them.
There are five categories of mental illness: anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, dementias, and eating disorders – and all can have varying levels of severity. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental disorders, as well as one of the most commonly untreated. Children, adolescents and adults can suffer from anxiety and, if left untreated (or undetected), can result in other mental and physical illnesses, including drug abuse and high blood pressure. The main benefit of medical marijuana in treating anxiety disorders is that it offers an alternative to prescription pharmaceuticals. Medical marijuana acts as a mood elevator and can alleviate the symptoms of long-term sufferers and prevent escalation to other disorders.
Mood disorders affect between 19 and 20 million adults in the U.S, and includes major depression and bipolar disorders. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of patients hospitalized with mood disorders have attempted or will succeed in committing suicide. Medical marijuana has been shown to reduce depressive episodes and break the cycle of the downward spiral those suffering from mood disorders often feel helpless to avoid.
Psychotic disorders affect cognition and emotion. Schizophrenia falls into this category with its effects on thought, perception, language, and sense of self. Those with schizophrenia can experience delusions, psychotic manifestations, and hallucinations. Symptoms of schizophrenia are categorized into “positive” and “negative” – positive symptoms are delusions, confusion, and hallucinations of varying severity, while negative symptoms include an inability to feel or show feelings, lack of motivation, and minimal flow of thought. The aforementioned study in Germany found CBD phytocannabinoids particularly helpful with control of the negative symptoms, which are harder to medicate.
Dementia is a decline of consciousness and an altered state of cognition. This includes changes in memory, as well as intellectual and physical functioning. Causes of dementia are vast, but most Americans associate dementia with Alzheimer’s disease – a progressive, incurable condition generally affecting people over the age of 65 years. The disease slowly destroys brain cells by triggering protein deposits in the brain that impact neural function. Studies have shown that a high THC strain of medical marijuana decreases the production of acetylcholinesterase – the neural enzyme that causes the formation of the protein deposits in the brain. This makes it one of the most effective treatments found for Alzheimer’s disease.
Eating disorders are divided into three main groups: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. These disorders are generally chronic and can be life-threatening. Those with anorexia deprive themselves of food, while those with bulimia eat large amounts of food and purge it from their systems, causing damage to their oesophagus and teeth. Binge eaters have periods of uncontrolled food consumption without purging – usually as an emotional response – and are often obese. Medical marijuana is shown to be effective in treating eating disorders by stimulating appetite and reducing the detrimental emotional responses people with the condition experience in relation to food.
And now, the bad news…
Since marijuana is one of the easier to acquire illicit drugs in the U.S., many people believe in self-medicating without consulting their physician about their reasons for doing so. As always, being honest with doctors is the best course of action. Unless the patient lives in a state where medical marijuana is legal, doctors would rather patients were on a tested, FDA-approved pharmaceutical than medical marijuana. Indeed, it is extremely unlikely (not to mention illegal) that any doctor would recommend self-medication with non-medical marijuana. Should a doctor prescribe an antidepressant or antipsychotic, concurrent self-medication with any marijuana is dangerous. If medical marijuana is an available option, the particular strain of marijuana matters with regard to the individual, hence the need for medical input.
One of the largest deterrents to the widespread support of medical marijuana is its legality – or, rather illegality. This inhibits further research by reducing funding, making the issues surrounding medical marijuana less scientific and more political. However, the number of states in the U.S. supporting the legalization of medical marijuana is growing. Soon, more researchers will be able to study the full uses of cannabinoids, which could lead to new breakthroughs in treatments for a variety mental disorders.
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