Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/31/2022
Whether you’re a stoner or not, there’s an increasingly popular question you may be asking about depressive disorders and cannabis: does a growing, optimistic market for cannabis products mean that CBD for depression might become a reality? It’s possible.
Since its legalization in 2018, the cannabis plant derivative cannabidiol, known popularly as CBD, has become one of the most trendy active ingredients on the market. Numerous salves, oils, edible products and others have hit the market, touting a variety of benefits.
From CBD oils for anxiety to CBD-rich hemp products for chronic pain, there’s a lot of stuff on the market claiming to use CBD as a treatment. While the science is young, the experts are cautious about CBD for a depression treatment plan. Here’s why.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a compound found in organic hemp or the cannabis sativa plant (yes, the same one that people call weed).
CBD is one of several compounds that can be extracted from the cannabis sativa plant — in addition to its textile properties, cannabis sativa also contains delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is still illegal at the federal level and is known for its psychoactive effects.
Officially, the federal government recognizes CBD as a treatment for Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome — two seizure-inducing disorders.
The FDA approved it in 2018, the same year that most of the hemp plant was removed from the Controlled Substances Act. THC is the only compound from the hemp plant that remains federally illegal.
CBD’s mechanism of action isn’t fully understood, but it is thought to have the ability to potentially treat disorders and diseases by interacting with certain neurotransmitters and cannabinoid receptors to reduce inflammation, treat certain cancers and neurodegenerative diseases and treat mood disorders and chronic pain.
At least, that’s what it’s being studied for at the moment.
Does CBD treat depression? It’s unclear right now.
Officially, no benefits for mental health from CBD are formally recognized by the FDA. There are reasons to think that we’re simply awaiting adequate data before we see official recognition, but the relationship between CBD and depression is complicated.
CBD has been studied for its effects on generalized anxiety disorder and severe anxiety — and its effects on serotonin levels and on symptoms of depression — and the results of its antidepressant-like effects haven’t been conclusively identified.
Instead, what we have are a lot of anecdotal studies suggesting that it might be possible to target the benefits of cannabidiol for the treatment of mood disorders — eventually.
There’s a substantial amount of research for CBD’s potential in the medical world, but it’s worth reminding everyone that this research, though promising in many instances, is still developing.
For a “meta” perspective on CBD research, we can look to a 2018 review of literature on the subject.
The analysis showed that more than a decade of reviewed studies had demonstrated evidence that CBD has benefits to offer and could potentially be a treatment for substance dependence, substance abuse, epilepsy, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders (including social phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder), depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s and various sleep disorders.
In one 24-person study from 2011, CBD showed promise in treating the effects of social anxiety disorder. Since anxiety disorders are currently treated effectively with antidepressants, it stands that the possible correlation is worth looking at.
A 2020 study conducted on animals looked at the potential link between CBD oils and serotonin levels and found that there was an antidepressant effect with CBD use.
A 2020 meta-analysis on depression treatment with CBD explained that the effects of CBD on depression might be related to its ability to encourage plasticity in neural pathways, as well as its benefits as a stabilizer, which were said to be similar to an existing depression treatment: lithium.
But a lot of promise does not immediately mean a lot of use, and when it comes to the data we have, most studies concluded their research with optimism and unanswered questions. And in most cases, they lacked the information to address a very real concern: that CBD may also have a negative effect on mental health.
While the data regarding CBD for depression thus far might seem promising, the reality is that CBD is still in its early infant trials for treating mood disorders.
And as promising as some of these initial results may be, there’s equal reason to consider that CBD might have some adverse effects on your mood, as well.
The National Library of Medicine has stated that tests are currently being conducted to see if CBD brings benefits for people suffering from mood disorders, but they are equally quick to point out that CBD has not yet received FDA approval for this or any other conditions “treatable” by CBD.
More importantly, the NLM has cautioned that physicians should be careful in the recommendation of CBD for people with a history of mood disorders like depression, as well as people who have experienced suicidal thoughts in the past.
There is some data that has shown that the use of CBD correlates to increased suicidal thoughts and suicidal behavior.
Ultimately, the NLM stops short of recommending against CBD use, but that’s not an altogether positive profile for CBD from one of the world’s major medical information resources.
Since CBD has really only fallen into a “legal” category since 2018, there hasn’t been a depth of research into how it interacts with other medications.
Even the question we’ve already discussed here are in the early research stages, so there’s relatively little data on how the countless prescription and OTC medications on the market interact with cannabidiol.
The Department of Health issued a blanket warning that using CBD might affect medications like benzodiazepines (sedatives), PDE5 inhibitors (erectile medications), beta blockers, tricyclic antidepressants, SSRIs and opioids.
The DOH stopped short of saying whether there were any adverse effects to be aware of with regards to the antidepressants.
Additionally, one small study from 2021 involving six people noted that CBD did have adverse effects on the function of antidepressants, including the SSRI citalopram.
In the study, CBD usage increased concentrations of escitalopram and citalopram, although the researchers fell short of confirming whether that had any adverse effects on the patients’ moods. They concluded by explaining that further research was “clearly warranted.”
CBD oils for depression and other types of CBD products are likely a long way off from FDA approval.
If you’re considering using CBD for your mental health in any capacity, it might be best for you to discuss it with your healthcare provider. After all, there may be potential conflicts with other medications that you’ll avoid by seeking professional guidance.
As for your symptoms of depression, there are better ways to treat them.
There are already medications on the market with FDA approval to treat depression. Antidepressants work by managing imbalances in brain chemicals, and the current slate of antidepressant medication available with FDA approval is effective in the treatment of depressive disorders (as well as treatment of anxiety).
And one of the best ways to address your mental health concerns and any depressive symptoms is by talking to a professional. Therapeutic support is key for many depressed peoples’ success.
Many modern therapy professionals will provide therapy utilizing the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) method. The goal of CBT is to help people retrain their brains to address mood shifts and intrusive thoughts to reduce the impact of depressive thoughts on daily life.
If you’re ready to seek care and solutions for depression, lighting up a joint, consuming an oil product or making use of some high-quality CBD products may indeed offer some benefits.
But there are science-backed, well-researched, FDA-approved ways to help yourself, with fewer unanswered questions in their literature. We’re not telling you to avoid cannabis products, but you may experience better results from treatment options recommended by a medical professional.
If you’re ready to do something, talking to a mental health professional or even trying online counseling are options worth considering.
Talking to someone about depression is an important first step.