From Alzheimers to Depression: The Impact of Marijuana on Mental Health

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have some form of broad marijuana legalization in effect. Marijuana is highly controversial and sparks political and medical debate as the government navigates legalizing the drug for its health and economic benefits.

Medical professionals both holistic and traditional have conducted research to find marijuana’s true impact on our mental health. It can act as a treatment for various mental disorders and a substitute for more harmful drugs. But that’s not all …

Marijuana has proved helpful for patients suffering from depression

Worried young man sits on the edge of a bed.

Marijuana might be helpful for those with depression. | iStock.com

Scientists at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions studied chronic stress and depression, with a focus on endocannabinoids, which are brain chemicals similar to substances in marijuana. The researchers found that in the animal models they studied, chronic stress reduced the production of endocannabinoids, leading to depression-like behavior, which they then used cannabis to counteract. This can potentially lead to mood stabilization.

It can benefit anxiety, but the verdict’s still out on PTSD

A sad and depressed young man.

There is still research to be done. | iStock.com

A team of researchers in Canada and the U.S. recently conducted a review of the science behind marijuana’s health benefits. In their report, published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review, researchers found evidence that cannabis can likely benefit people dealing with social anxiety.

However, PTSD may be a different story. The National Center for PTSD cautions veterans against marijuana use to relieve PTSD-related symptoms. An American College of Physicians study states; “Evidence is insufficient to draw conclusions about the benefits and harms of plant-based cannabis preparations in patients with PTSD, but several ongoing studies may soon provide important results.”

Marijuana is a good potential opioid substitute

A person uses scissors to cut up a marijuana plant.

Marijuana has worked as an alternative to strong medications. | Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Several doctors and researchers are interested in the potential use of marijuana as an alternative to opioids. Since 1999, overdose deaths in the U.S. involving opioids (prescription painkillers and heroin) have quadrupled according to Time.

Dr. Lester Grinspoon, an Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, found that, “If you give [opioids] alongside cannabis, there is a synergistic effect which means you can give less of the opioid and or you can give the opioid for a shorter period.”

It may help with cognitive brain disorders like Alzheimer’s

A pair of hands in blue gloves cuts up marijuana plants on a tray.

Marijuana could change the lives of those who suffer from Alzheimer’s. | Brendan SmialowskiAFP/Getty Images

Alzheimers.net wrote a comprehensive review on studies suggesting that small doses of marijuana can help with Alzheimer’s progression. The site analyzed a preclinical study published on the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease which found that small amounts of THC can slow the production of beta-amyloid proteins, thought to be a characteristic and key contributor to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

It may be harmful to people suffering from bipolar disorder

An upset young woman sitting in front of a desk.

However, those with bipolar disorder might not benefit from it. | JackF/iStock/Getty Images

A U.K. study conducted at Lancaster University found that cannabis can be linked to heightened manic and depressive symptoms in sufferers of bipolar disorder. This counteracts the effects that medication used to treat bipolar disorder has, rendering marijuana potentially harmful to those with manic and depressive symptoms.

While marijuana can’t cause psychiatric disorders, a case report conducted by Masood A. Khan, MD and Sailaja Akella, found heavy use can mimic symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

 Here’s what it does to your brain

A person smokes a joint in front of a brown blurry background.

When it comes to weed, age can make a big difference. | Kenzo TribouillardAFP/Getty Images

THC, the active component of marijuana, induces short-term affects on brain function. THC quickly passes from your lungs into the bloodstream, where blood carries the chemical to the brain and other organs throughout the body. Marijuana activates parts of the brain that contain the highest number of these receptors. This causes the high that people feel, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Research on the long-term effects of marijuana is particularly concerning to the developing brain. One long-term study conducted in New Zealand found that adolescents may be uniquely susceptible to lasting damage from marijuana use, as their brains are still “under construction.” A NIDA report states that people who start smoking marijuana in adulthood don’t show significant IQ decline.

Marijuana use still has potential side effects

Person wearing marijuana glasses

Marijuana brings out different side effects to each person who consumes it. | Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

While there’s little sufficient research that indicates smoking marijuana increases lung cancer, the process irritates your lungs and can lead to chest colds and lung infections. Other potential physical effects include dizziness, shallow breathing, dry mouth, and increased appetite.

Marijuana has a far more significant effect on your mind than your body for most. “Most people use marijuana because the high makes them feel happy, relaxed, or detached from reality,” WedMD states. However, many people experience less pleasant mental effects like paranoia, heightened anxiety, and depression.

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