Beating the Winter Blues: Can Cannabis Help with Seasonal Depression?

Beating the Winter Blues: Can Cannabis Help with Seasonal Depression?

Published on December 17, 2021 by Kristina Willis

As the temperatures grow colder and the days become shorter, you may feel a tinge of the winter blues. Despite joyous holiday festivities, 14% of American adults experience depressive symptoms associated with the change in seasons, and 6% suffer from full-blown seasonal depression. To address such issues, some cannabis retailers present marijuana and hemp products as a cure.

Unfortunately, there aren’t cannabis studies that explicitly focus on seasonal depression (SAD) to validify manufacturer claims. However, research on associated conditions such as major depression and anxiety disorders gleam potentially relevant insight. If you are looking to specifically address sleep issues or depressive symptoms, cannabis may be a viable treatment option in conjunction with other therapies.

Read on to learn more about SAD and what current research postulates regarding cannabis treatment.

Is There Such a Thing as Seasonal Depression?

Though it may sound almost supernatural, SAD is a real medical phenomenon characterized by seasonal episodes of depression. It is considered a subtype of major depressive disorder, like persistent depressive disorder. Typical onset is between the 20–30 age range, and people with SAD frequently experience sleep issues, with 25% reporting regular insomnia and 16.2% experiencing frequent nightmares. On average, people with SAD sleep 2.5 hours longer in the winter than in the summer.

Symptoms may include:

► Fatigue
► Difficulty waking up
► Low energy
► Increased appetite and/or weight gain
► Difficulty concentrating
► Other symptoms associated with major depression disorder

Seasonal Depression Diagnosis Requirements:

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), there are three required criteria for a seasonal depression diagnosis.

1. Symptoms of major depression.

2. Depressive episodes occur during a specific season for at least two consecutive years.

3. Episodes are more frequent than other depressive episodes throughout the year.

How Long is Seasonal Depression?

SAD typically starts in the late fall or early winter and lasts for 4–5 months. 40% of cases result in a changed diagnosis when symptoms persist into following seasons. Moreover, 30–50% of affected individuals do not show symptoms in consecutive years. Though SAD can occur during the spring and summer months, 90% of SAD cases are of the winter-fall variety.

What Causes the Winter Blues?

The winter blues are a milder form of SAD; however, neither is entirely understood by the scientific community, including what causes them. Predominant theories involve lack of sunlight (and Vitamin-D deficits) leading to impaired mood regulation from inhibited serotonin production. Excess melatonin may also play a role by disrupting normal sleep-wake cycles and increasing sleepiness. Accordingly, people living in climates with greater variation from season to season are more likely to suffer from SAD.

In addition, studies demonstrate a likely genetic component, as roughly 15% of individuals with SAD have a first-degree relative who has it. People with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder are also more likely to have co-occurring SAD along with other mental challenges such as attention-deficit disorder, anxiety disorders, or eating disorders. When making a diagnosis, physicians have to factor in stressful events associated with the winter season or holidays.

How Is Seasonal Depression Typically Treated?

Light box therapy is effective roughly 60–80% of the time and has been the predominant treatment for SAD since the 1980s. Today, it is often used in conjunction with other therapies or medications. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy for SAD (CBT-SAD) can help people learn to replace winter-associated negativity with more positive thoughts.

While both are effective, studies show that CBT-SAD favors a long-term prognosis compared to light therapy. Alternatively, some people take antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), as they help enhance mood by assisting with serotonin production. Vitamin-D supplements are another drug option that people utilize to treat SAD.

4 Categorical Treatments:

1. Light Therapy
2. Psychotherapy
3. Antidepressant medications
4. Vitamin D

What Is Broad-Band Light Therapy?

Light therapy consists of daily exposure to a 10,000-lux light box for approximately 30–45 minutes in the morning. Light boxes tend to be around 10,000 lux or 20 times brighter than ordinary indoor lighting. In addition, all potentially damaging UV light is filtered out to ensure patient safety.

Can Cannabis Help with Seasonal Depression?

While light box therapy is the most recommended treatment, many people use other methods concurrently, including antidepressant medications. Theoretically, cannabis products could serve as a safer alternative to SSRIs, which often have adverse side effects. There is some evidence that terpenes and other cannabinoids in full spectrum cannabis may help offset the negative side effects of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

A 2020 self-reported study of 1,819 cannabis users found that 95.8% experienced symptom relief after consuming cannabis. 64% reported positive side effects, such as feeling happy, relaxed, or optimistic. However, up to 20% experienced adverse effects typically associated with depression, such as lack of motivation. It is worth noting that the study was not comprehensive as it focused on natural cannabis flower in vivo and relied on self-administration.

Image ‘Water on White Widow‘ by Wayne S. Grazio licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In conclusion, almost all patients in our sample experienced symptom relief from using Cannabis to treat depression and with minimal evidence of serious side effects in the short run.

Xiaoxue Li et al.

People with SAD who also have co-occurring bipolar disorder (BD) should not use cannabis as a treatment. Symptoms of BD respond negatively to the psychoactive effects of THC, particularly during manic episodes, and can make issues worse. Moreover, people with bipolar spectrum disorders are more at risk for cannabis use disorders. The basic rule is that cannabis can potentially help with depressive symptoms but exacerbates manic ones.

Does CBD Help with SAD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is not an approved treatment for SAD; however, anecdotal accounts support using CBD for minimizing symptoms to a more manageable level. Moreover, preclinical evidence shows that CBD can reduce anxiety behaviors prevalent in disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), SAD, and more.

Should you decide to try CBD for SAD, keep in mind that it can cause excessive drowsiness and slowed breathing. When taken in isolation, CBD is very safe. However, as with liver problems, combining CBD with other medications can be dangerous. In the case of SAD, taking CBD alongside sedative medications is cause for concern, and you should always consult with a doctor before taking cannabis products with other drug therapies.

CBD or THC: Which is Better for SAD?

According to the 2020 self-reported study mentioned earlier, THC provided the strongest and most fast-acting form of relief. Like conventional antidepressants, THC acts on receptors in the brain to stimulate the production of neurotransmitters that play a crucial role in mood regulation. In addition, the study suggests that the mood-elevating effects of THC happen shortly after consumption and can provide immediate relief within two hours or less. 

While THC works faster, that does not mean that it is safer or more effective in the long run. The study specifically looked to measure real-time effects rather than pervasive results. CBD has a better safety profile and is much harder to abuse. The strongest argument in favor of THC is that many antidepressants can take up to several weeks to produce benefits, which may not be fast enough for people in crisis experiencing acute episodes.

Is Cannabis a Viable Option for Treating SAD?

Light therapy and CBT-SAD are both safe and effective first-line treatments for SAD. However, if you are already using those and failing to achieve results or want to replace antidepressants that have adverse side effects, CBD may help provide safe relief. Moreover, THC can be a viable option if you need quick results for depressive crisis situations. Above all, remain vigilant when it comes to multiple drug therapies and keep up an open line of dialogue with your doctor.