CBD and Depression: Evidence for Optimism

It’s normal for human beings to feel sadness, dissatisfaction, agitation, or even despair. Challenging feelings usually arise in response to trauma, grief, and loss, and most of us learn how to manage them and move forward, sometimes with the help of mental health professionals and techniques like mindfulness.

In some instances, though, the troubling feelings don’t resolve, and life can begin to feel hopeless. This is depression – a serious condition with a range of symptoms as unique as the individual sufferers.

Depression is a serious mental disorder with a profound impact on the body and mind. Medication, behavioral modification, exercise, and a good diet can help. And current research-based evidence suggests that a holistic approach is most effective for managing symptoms and getting on with the business of life.

In recent years, more and more people with depression have been taking CBD to help them cope, alongside more traditional approaches. CBD should not replace professional support, but many patients claim that it has helped relieve their symptoms – and a growing number of studies suggest that this natural substance can play a significant role in aiding recovery. Here’s what we know so far. 

What Causes Depression?

Depression is a complex condition, and we are beginning to understand that it can be attributed to a broad range of influences, such as:

  • Neurotransmitter imbalance or deficiency
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Physical illness
  • Chronic pain
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Stressful life events and changes
  • Past trauma
  • Social isolation
  • Other emotional disorders

Because so many common human experiences and conditions can contribute to depression, and because it tends to manifest differently in different people, there’s no comprehensive cure. Treatments must be customized for the individual. A multifaceted approach to recovery often delivers better, faster results than placing all hope in a single solution. 

How to Heal a Brain

When you consider depression and its treatment, you might first think of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in regulating mood. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a common medical intervention. Although SSRIs cause an immediate spike in serotonin levels, it can take weeks before a patient’s mood improves, if ever – which indicates that serotonin levels aren’t exclusively responsible for causing and solving depression. They’re important, but they’re not the whole story.

In addition to neurochemical imbalances, neurophysiology also plays a role in mental health and its treatment. When people suffer from depression, a specific region of the brain – the hippocampus — can atrophy and shrink. The hippocampus is responsible for some of our most vital cognitive functions, like memory, learning, and emotion. Fortunately, this remarkable part of the brain is also capable of recovering.

What is Neural Regeneration?

The hippocampus can grow new neurons and form new connections, a process called “neurogenesis” or “neural regeneration.” Historically, it was believed only young brains were capable of neurogenesis, but now we know that’s not true. Pivotal research in the field of neuroscience has revealed that our brains undergo changes throughout our entire lives. This phenomenon is called “neuroplasticity.” 

Antidepressant drugs stimulate neural regeneration in the hippocampus. It is believed this might be why antidepressants take weeks to become therapeutic. Brain neurons need time to heal, grow and form new connections. According to neuroscientists on the vanguard of these studies, hippocampal neurogenesis is the most promising new area of research on depression.

How Does CBD Help Neural Regeneration?

Cannabidiol was first granted FDA approval for the treatment of epileptic seizures. Researchers found and reported evidence that CBD is able to prevent seizures because it protects neurons in the hippocampus, which is the precise area of the brain that becomes atrophied in people suffering from depression.

The evidence can be found in the study of both animal and human subjects. CBD treatments reduced significant neuron atrophy and death in the hippocampus of epileptic rats. Also, habitual human users of THC ( the psychoactive chemical in marijuana) share a neurological feature with depressed people in that their hippocampi tend to be smaller. However, CBD appears to help prevent this shrinking.

And to briefly revisit the question of serotonin, it’s now known that CBD activates a particular type of serotonin receptor – with a mechanism similar to the antidepressant drug buspirone (which also has neuroregenerative properties).

New research indicates that CBD has the capacity to protect and grow new neurons. However, because depression is a complex condition with varying symptoms on a case-by-case basis, it’s far more challenging to prove CBD’s efficacy as a treatment. 

CBD has seen minimal testing in human clinical trials, but the preliminary evidence — experimental, circumstantial, and observational — is very encouraging.

Is there a cure for depression?

Depression is as complex as it is common. It is a pernicious condition exacerbated by circumstances, disease, loss, chronic pain, harmful thought patterns, and imbalanced neurochemistry. Longstanding recovery will require support for each individual’s unique needs, and time and patience are essential to heal a depressed mind.

Natural compounds like CBD can be extremely useful tools for “rewiring” the circuitry of a depressed person’s mind, and there is much to recommend a multifaceted approach. Mental health experts encourage people with depression to combine chemical treatments (pharmaceuticals as well as supplements like CBD) with behavioral changes, psychotherapy, diet, exercise and more. 

CBD is not a first-line depression treatment, but it can be a powerful component of a long-term recovery plan. All those in crisis or considering suicide should immediately seek professional support and/or call a suicide prevention hotline. Depressed or not, if you’re interested in taking CBD, you should speak frankly with a doctor before adding it to your self-care routine. This is especially critical if you’re already taking prescription drugs, as there are potential interactions, contraindications, and other matters of safety to consider.