Bipolar disorder may be one of the world’s oldest known illnesses with records dating back thousands of years.
But today, doctors are challenged when it comes to treating the condition. The challenge is drug abuse; a problem that affects only 6% of the general population yet plagues more than half of all patients with bipolar disorder.
Interestingly, weed appears to be the drug of choice for these patients, which has led many to see a possible treatment of this disorder. Formerly known as “Manic Depression,” the symptoms of bipolar disorder may include poor temper control, poor judgement, little need for sleep, reckless behavior, lack of self control and sufferers being easily distracted, among other things. Millions suffer from these symptoms every day, and many of them use marijuana to treat their disorder.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder causes drastic mood swings, alternating between states of depression and mania. Mania can range from moderate levels of energy and excitement to symptoms of psychosis, such as erratic and delusional behaviors.
Researchers say that approximately 4% of the population will fit the criteria of bipolar disorder at some point in their lives. And while the underlying cause has yet to be identified, there are a variety of treatment options available.
The first-line of treatment is lithium which acts to reverse symptoms of mania, but other mood-stabilizers (anticonvulsants) and anti-psychotics are commonly used as well.
On the other hand, current pharmaceutical treatments subject patients to a wide range of side-effects, which can sometimes outweigh the benefits of the treatments themselves. As a result, many are beginning to turn to medical marijuana – a rarely recommended treatment option that is gradually becoming more noticed as research progresses.
How Can Weed Help?
Marijuana acts on the endocannabinoid system– a homeostatic regulator that is present in all humans. Interestingly, research suggests that certain cannabinoids found in marijuana (i.e. THC and CBD) may have significant mood-stabilizing properties that could be beneficial for patients with the disorder.
Studies have shown that THC, under certain conditions, can have anti-anxiety, anti-hypnotic and antidepressant effects, resulting in improvements in mood and overall well-being. CBD seems to counter the psychoactive effects of THC and may also possess anti-anxiety, anti-hypnotic and anti-convulsant properties of its own.
Researchers have also identified a link between marijuana use and cognitive improvements in patients with schizophrenia – a finding could explain evidence of similar improvements in bipolar disorder.
What Studies Say
A number of recent studies have set out to determine the effects of marijuana use on patients with bipolar disorder and have provided some thought-provoking findings.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Oslo in Norway published the results of a study conducted on 133 bipolar patients. What they found was that patients who used cannabis regularly actually performed better than non-users on tests of verbal fluency and learning, although improvements in learning were not statistically significant.
In another study, published in 2012 by researchers at the Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York, regular marijuana use was linked to higher levels of attention, processing speed and memory among the 200 bipolar patients that the researchers followed over a 9 year span. Interestingly, the study also found that they were still more engaged in social activities than non-users. Furthermore, the study identified no significant differences between cannabis use and independent living or work impairments.
Despite the overall lack of clinical research available on marijuana use and bipolar outcomes, case reports provide an abundance of evidence that seem to support its usefulness.
A study published in 1998 by Harvard university documented 5 cases in which patients obtained major relief from their bipolar-related symptoms through the use of marijuana. One of these patients, a 47-year-old woman, found weed to be more effective than other drugs in controlling her manic episodes. “A few puffs of this herb and I can be calm… this drug seems harmless compared to other drugs I have tried, including tranquilizers and lithium.”
In another case, the husband of a bipolar sufferer told of numerous ways that weed seemed to help his wife in dealing with the disorder. “My wife functions much better when she uses marijuana. When she is hypomanic, it relaxes her, helps her sleep, and slows her speech down. When she is depressed and would otherwise lie in bed all day, the marijuana makes her more active… Lithium is also effective, but it doesn’t always keep her in control.”
These cases were also cited alongside others in a review study conducted by a team of British researchers. The review, published in 2005 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, presented evidence from a 1996 report that described 5 cases in which marijuana seemed to have a direct effect in countering depression. The researchers also cited 2 surveys conducted in 2003 which found that 15-27% of medical marijuana patients in California were prescribed the drug for various mood disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD and ADHD.
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