The Complex Relationship Between Cannabis and Mental Health

By Dr. Michele Ross
Fuu J, Unsplash

As the national dialogue surrounding cannabis continues to shift in favor of legalization, public knowledge of the plant’s health and wellness benefits is spreading, with many patients of mental illness discovering the potential of cannabis to relieve psychological distress and restore their ability to function in day-to-day life.

Although research has been limited due to the plant’s federally illegal status, both formal studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that cannabis can serve as an important part of a wellness and self-care regimen, and the science behind its valuable biological role is increasingly well-documented.

Understanding the potential of marijuana to treat mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and PTSD first requires an introduction to the endocannabinoid system: The communication network comprised of receptors and neurotransmitters that play a major part in maintaining our body’s natural processes. Every bit as important as our immune or digestive systems, the endocannabinoid system is involved in everything from managing pain, to promoting sleep, to regulating stress. When the network is out of whack–causing what is sometimes known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CED)–supplementing with cannabinoids, beneficial compounds found within the cannabis plant, can help the body return to homeostasis and resume healthy function.

[ Read more about your endocannabinoid system ]

Among the hundreds of cannabinoids in existence, the most common are THC, a psychoactive compound, and CBD, its non-psychoactive counterpart, which has been receiving significant attention in recent years for its ability to treat anxiety and PTSD. For many patients, CBD acts as an anxiolytic, reducing feelings of panic and stress. While THC has also been shown to reduce anxiety, it can have the opposite effect when taken in too high of a dose or in a new context. As a result, it is essential to begin with a microdose when trying any cannabis product for the first time; less is more. Starting with a very small amount of THC–around 2.5 milligrams–and gradually working up to the point when the desired effect is reached, is the key to finding the correct dose for each person’s unique biology and needs.

When treated as a daily supplement in small amounts, cannabis can be effectively incorporated into a regular health and wellness routine without producing euphoria or the feeling of being “high,” which many consumers prefer to avoid when using cannabis as medicine. To maximize efficacy, cannabinoids can be also combined in synergy with one another, or with essential oils–such as lavender–and other complementary botanicals to enhance the benefits and provide an added layer of protection against stressful environmental triggers.

By counteracting anxiety and relaxing muscles, cannabis can help promote sleep, as tension from the stresses of daily life is often the culprit keeping chronic insomniacs awake at night. In addition to finding one’s ideal microdose, patients should also carefully experiment to find their ideal delivery method. While smoking and vaping offer fast-acting methods for those looking to fall asleep as quickly as possible, they also pose the risk of lung damage. One healthier alternative is the tincture, which allows cannabis to be administered under the tongue, delivering rapid effects without the need to inhale. On the other hand, those looking for a delivery method that is slower and longer-lasting to keep them soundly asleep throughout the night might want to consider a capsule or a patch. One innovative product that works like a patch and that is ideal for a variety of conditions including pain, insomnia and stress is the Evolve Formulas Transdermal NanoSerum™, which offers precise dosing and provides both targeted and systemic relief, carrying the beneficial cannabinoids into the bloodstream for an overall calming and comforting feeling that takes effect within minutes.

Consuming cannabis can also interact positively with the endocannabinoid system to provide relief from depression. Incorporating a tailored dose and delivery system into a depression treatment plan can greatly reduce symptoms–especially in conjunction with therapy. Further, cannabis is an overall safer and more natural alternative to using pharmaceutical antidepressants–many of which produce harmful side effects–thereby presenting a far less detrimental long-term treatment option. Not to mention, many patients who replace synthetic prescription medications with cannabis find that they feel more like themselves on a day-to-day basis, fully focused and without any unwanted grogginess.

It’s no secret that achieving peak mental health is an extremely complex undertaking. With this in mind, it’s important to emphasize that cannabis may not emerge as the end-all-be-all for every patient with PTSD, anxiety, depression or another mental illness–and it might take some trial and error. I recommend that my patients document how certain doses and products make them feel, so they have a frame of reference to help them hone in on the most effective combination.

That said, cannabinoids have shown remarkable promise in promoting resilience, allowing susceptible individuals to better cope with life’s daily stressors and helping to stabilize the chemical imbalances that underlie many of these illnesses. Finding the ideal therapeutic dose, optimal delivery method and complementary treatment plan has provided powerful results for patients nationwide who have found little to no relief with, or who have experienced negative consequences from, psychiatric medications. Fortunately, the cannabis community is continuously growing and the industry’s medical offerings are improving rapidly. We are already well on our way to serving a population in dire need of attention, helping them to find relief and peace the natural way, by leveraging the healing power of this remarkable plant.

As a neuroscientist, Dr. Michele Ross was frustrated by the lack of education on the endocannabinoid system both doctors and scientists received, despite medical cannabis being used by millions of patients nationwide. In 2013, she founded the “Endocannabinoid Deficiency Foundation,” now known as IMPACT Network, with the mission to drive clinical research on cannabis for women’s health. She is currently CEO of Infused Health, a platform for cannabis coaching, and serves on the board of the nanobiotechnology company NanoSphere Health Sciences.

 Dr. Ross is author of two books, “Train Your Brain to Get Thin” and “Vitamin Weed: A 4-Step Plan to Prevent and Reverse Endocannabinoid Deficiency.” She has researched addiction, mental health, and psychopharmacology for over a decade.

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