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Medical Marijuana and Major Depression

What Is Major Depression?

Major depression, also known as clinical depression, is a form of depression that is strong enough to alter one's daily life and last for at least several weeks but can last significantly longer. The exact cause of major depression is unknown and that may be because there are numerous causes. Doctors have noticed that there are certain lifestyle, nature and nurture factors that may play a role in developing major depression. These include a family propensity toward the disorder, substance abuse, prolonged illness, traumatic events and abuse. However, a person who has experienced none of these can still develop major depression.

The symptoms of major depression are the same as any other kinds of depression, though it is more prolonged and severe than other types. These symptoms are feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loss, anger, frustration and lack of enjoyment. Physical symptoms are weight loss or weight gain, sleeping changes and fatigue. People who suffer from major depression may think about committing suicide or even plan/attempt it. That and how much it can interfere with life are the reasons why major depression requires treatment from mental health and medical professionals. Medical marijuana has been shown to have a range of benefits for users, though patients do not respond in a uniform manner.

Like all mental health disorders, major depression may require the use and cessation of several different medications before doctors find the one that works right for each individual patient. Medical marijuana is one of these medications and can show different results for different patients. However, unlike other depression medications, there are no risks of overdose and the effects take place almost immediately.

Medications for Depression and Their Side Effects

One of the traditional approaches to treating depression is the use of powerful medications. There are several different types of antidepressants, and doctors commonly prescribe several of them before finding the one that benefits their patients the most. Some people even take more than one type of medication for their condition. These are a few of the common types of antidepressants:

  • SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) — These include medications such as Paxil, Lexapro, Zoloft and Prozac. Side effects include headaches, weight fluctuations, insomnia, dizziness and sexual dysfunction.
  • SNRIs (Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors) — SNRIs include Cymbalta, Effexor, Pristiq and others. Dizziness, fatigue and upset stomach are a few of the side effects.
  • TCAs (Tricyclic Antidepressants) and MAOIs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors) — TCAs and MAOIs are among the first medications that were used to treat patients suffering from depression. Brand names include Elavil, Norpramin, Aventyl, Vivactil and many others. Patients have reported tremors, blood pressure changes, constipation, upset stomach and other issues when taking these medications.
  • Other antidepressants — Other medications used to treat depression include Wellbutrin, Remeron and Desyrel. Side effects include blurred vision, constipation, drowsiness, upset stomach and others.

Other Treatments

People who have particularly severe symptoms of depression or don’t find relief in therapy or medications sometimes turn to other treatments. Common treatments include Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS). Here is information on each approach:

  • ECT — A patient undergoing ECT therapy is put under general anesthesia and then given a small current of electricity that causes a brief, yet controlled, seizure. Treatments are given over the course of a few weeks in order to help the different parts of the brain responsible for controlling mood. While this approach has proven effective for the majority of patients, many of them suffer temporary memory loss.
  • TMS — This is another approach for patients who have not benefitted from either medications or therapy. It involves the use of an electromagnetic device that is placed above the top of the patient’s head. The device induces an electric current much like ECT, but the current is much smaller. The treatment does not result in any sort of seizure, and does not require anesthesia. TMS treatments typically occur four or five times a week for anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks, and side effects are minimal.
  • VNS — This is a surgical procedure where the doctor places a device similar to a pacemaker into the patient’s chest. The device is then attached to the portion of the vagus nerve that runs from the neck to the brain. Electrical pulses are delivered by the device, via the nerve, to the areas of the brain that control the patient’s mood. These pulses are designed to relieve depression by stimulating the mood-controlling regions of the brain. In most cases, it takes several months before results of the implantation will be known. Even though this is a surgical procedure, most patients are able to return home the same day.

Medical Marijuana and Major Depression

The University of Southern California conducted marijuana and depression research using a survey targeting both marijuana users and people who do not use marijuana. The survey, which utilized "The Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale," showed interesting results. Out of the 4,400 people surveyed, the ones who used marijuana showed fewer signs of depression than those who did not. Further studies were conducted into whether recreational users were more depressed than medical marijuana users as some have suggested and this also showed interesting results. Recreational marijuana does not appear to have more risks in causing or worsening depression. In fact, medical marijuana users were shown to have more signs of depression than recreational marijuana users, which was attributed to their various illnesses. There is no evidence to suggest that the medical marijuana was causing depression. Prolonged illness has long been known to be one of the risk factors for depression.

Medical Marijuana and Major Depression-Related Weight Loss

One of the few widely accepted uses for medical marijuana is for increasing appetite. Individuals with major depression may experience extreme loss of appetite that can lead to dangerous weight loss. Medical marijuana can help them eat more after ingestion or smoking. One of its primary uses in this department is for emaciated HIV patients. Nonetheless, it can increase appetite in any individual. In fact, this is one of the most common effects of medical and recreational marijuana.

The Marijuana and Depression Myth

It has long been said that marijuana increases or causes depression and other mental health maladies. While it is certain that some react poorly to medical marijuana and should be given other treatments, it is no different from other mental health medications. Furthermore, the statement that medical marijuana is a cause of mental health maladies like major depression may have no basis in truth. Circumstances that lead people to use marijuana and the likelihood of people self-medicating with marijuana is likely leading people to believe this myth.

According to Dr. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin on the Mayo Clinic website, marijuana is probably not the cause of any kind of depression. He states that the same factors that lead individuals into depression are similar to the factors that lead individuals to self-medicate with marijuana. In other words, marijuana does not cause depression. People who are using marijuana that are also depressed were either already depressed or predisposed to depression before they began using marijuana. The fact that so many people turn to marijuana to treat their depression says more for the use of marijuana as a medical treatment than it does for marijuana as a cause of depression. Nonetheless, it is important to note that adverse mental reactions do happen in a small portion of marijuana users. Medical marijuana use under the supervision of a mental health professional is always preferable to self-medication.

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