As we approach the depths of winter, many people will be feeling the burden of the ‘winter blues’ or its technical name Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Some may be familiar with this mental health disorder but often it flies under the radar because of its inconsistent, depressive patterns. Unfortunately, it’s not so forgettable for those who suffer from it, especially in these long winter months. SAD is a form of depression that is determined by the seasons and is most prevalent in the winter months.
This condition affects a staggering 10 million Americans and Psychology Today suggests another 10% to 20% may suffer from mild SAD, with the majority being women. Knowledge of this condition has become much more prominent over recent years because of media coverage and new research, but what hasn’t been well documented is the promising relationship between SAD and cannabis.
Like many depressions, SAD can be hard to maintain and stabilise, and while there are many preventative measures, no cure has been determined. Through modern research on the chemical compounds within cannabis, new and exciting properties have been found within its cannabinoids. Including those that be of some use to some of SAD’s most difficult side effects.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and Why Could Cannabis Be a Good Treatment?
SAD is classified as a mental health disorder; it is often described as a recurring depression that begins and ends in one particular season. While it is considered typical that everyone will experience days of feeling down, especially in the darker months, SAD is an extreme change of mental state from one season to another. It is often referred to as the ‘winter blues’, although some people suffer in other months such as summer and spring. This has become known as reverse-SAD.
Many theorists believe that SAD is most prevalent during the winter months because of the lack of light. For some of us this can create a serious hormone imbalance in the body. Without sunlight many people develop a vitamin C deficiency, a vitamin important because of its production of serotonin. SAD sufferers also show an over-production of melatonin, which can cause extreme drowsiness. These causes will be explored later in the article.
Who Does Seasonal Affective Disorder Affect?
Like many forms of depression, it can be hard to determine who is at risk because of the complicated relationship we have with our mental health. Simply, different people need different things to make them feel happy and content in their life and even then, it can be completely out of their control.
However, what we do know about SAD is that it tends to develop between the ages of 18 and 30, which is unsurprising as this can be some of the most stressful years of our lives. Women are also more at risk of developing SAD. In fact, they are 40% more likely to suffer from this condition than men. This may be because of hormonal fluctuations which can impact energy levels and mood. These fluctuations can be caused by natural effects of the body such as menopause but also unnatural effects like birth control.
People who are more vulnerable to SAD tend to suffer from other forms of depression, whether that be bipolar or situational. This occurs because the cause of one depression tends to be similar to another and they simply surface in environmental changes such as the seasons.
It’s not unusual to suffer from SAD because of your genealogy. Like many depressions, it can be re-traced through your family history. If you do suffer from SAD, its typical that others in your family also do and it is completely out of your control.
Living further from the equator can also affect SAD, evidence suggests that the further you live from the equator, whether that be south or north, the more likely you are to suffer from this mental illness. This is because countries further away have extreme light patterns. For instance, during the middle of winter in Finland, there are only 6 hours of daylight and from May to mid-June there is no darkness at all. These conditions can have a severe impact on those suffering from SAD.
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
While we know light has a huge impact on the cause of SAD, what exactly is going on in some bodies that makes it more sensitive than others? Firstly, those who suffer from SAD have difficulty regulating the neurotransmitter serotonin, this particular transmitter is thought to influence our mood.
One study conducted by the European Neuropsychopharmacology journal in 2014 discovered that sufferers of SAD had 5% more SERT, a protein that helps transport serotonin around the body, in the winter months than in the summer months. Higher SERT levels lead to lower serotonin activity and therefore cause depression. Typically, during the summer months sunlight is able to keep the SERT levels low and regulated, which is why people with SAD typically experience winter lows.
As well as lower serotonin activity, people who experience SAD tend to have an overproduction of melatonin, this can lead to feeling lethargic and sleepy. This is because the hormone melatonin is produced by the pineal gland, which responds to darkness by causing sleepiness. Meaning, during the winter months much more melatonin is created than in the summer. This constant feeling of drowsiness can contribute to depression.
Many scientists have found that this combination of low serotonin and high melatonin impact the bodies internal ‘clock’ or circadian rhythm, which responds to the constant change between lightness and darkness, not just daily but seasonally. However, those who suffer from SAD generally have a different circadian rhythm, meaning their bodies don’t adjust appropriately to the environmentally changes.
Low vitamin D levels have also been associated with depressive symptoms. Although scientists believe there to be a relationship between vitamin D and serotonin, not enough research has been done to determine exactly what that is. The majority of vitamin D we receive is through sunlight, which is obviously affluent during the summer months but limited in the winter, and this is what causes a deficiency.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
SAD can produce a variety of different symptoms, often depending on the individual and the type of SAD you suffer from. However, some of the most common are:
- Constant low mood
- Lack of pleasure in everyday activities
- Anxiety and worry
- Lack of energy causing sleepiness
- Guilt and despair, causing a feeling of worthlessness
- Weight gain caused by a craving of fatty foods and carbohydrates
- Social withdrawal
Symptoms of summer SAD tend to be:
- Weight loss
- Anxiety and worry
- Social withdrawal
Conventional Medical Treatments That Don’t Include Cannabis
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, the best cause of action is to go see your doctor. They will be able to assess and advice you on what treatments you should try. There is a massive variation in different preventative measures you can try, these range from taking a daily walk to attending therapy. Many focus on making lifestyle changes:
- Going for a walk
- Eating healthier and have a balanced diet
- Herbal remedies, such as St John’s Wort
- Vitamin D supplements
However, that’s assuming you can manage these things – most people who suffer from SAD aren’t capable of performing these tasks because of the disorder itself.
This can lead to trying light therapy or possibly antidepressant medication. Light therapy is quite a common method and is simply an artificial light box that you can keep at home. The best on the market requires you to sit for around 30 minutes in front of the light to re-balance your hormones.
Medical Marijuana and Seasonal Affective Disorder
While many of the conventional treatments should be explored, there is no denying that advising someone suffering with depression to go for a walk and socialising with friends is easier said than done. Motivation is the key, but how can we promote this? And while antidepressants may be essential to maintain your mood, how can we control some of their adverse side-effects such as insomnia, loss of sexual desire, and nausea?
Cannabis contains some very important chemicals called cannabinoids, these work in our endocannabinoid system, which controls aspects of our body such as pain and mood. Two very important cannabinoids, known as CBD or cannabidiol and THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, have strong medicinal properties that prove very helpful with SAD. Some of these are:
- THC can be mood enhancing and increase happiness
- A substitute for other unhealthy recreational habits
- A relaxant
- Increase in serotonin levels
- Reduce anxiety
- Reduce insomnia
While cannabis can prove an effective way to reduce SAD symptoms, it’s important to choose the appropriate product. If anxiety is produced by the thought of smoking, try strains with low levels of THC so it doesn’t produce such a euphoric high. Or you can pick CBD products, you’ll most likely find high quantities of CBD in oils and sprays – these can be great for anxiety and insomnia. If are you interested in trying some strains which can be of great medicinal benefit – we have chosen the top 5 most effective for SAD.
Studies on Cannabis as a Treatment
1) Evidence of cannabis raising serotonin levels:
A study conducted in 2007 by McGill University investigated how effective cannabis is as an antidepressant. They used a synthetic form of THC, one of the active cannabinoids found in cannabis, and injected animals with a dose. They then used the Forced Swim test, which measures ‘depression’ in animals. The researchers found that at a low dosage the THC had caused an increase in the activity of the neurons that produce serotonin. However, increasing the THC to a heavy dosage reversed the effects.
This shows a really interesting relationship between cannabis and serotonin. Obviously more research needs to be done on people to determine any different cause and effect.
2) Evidence that CBD is an effective remedy for anxiety:
In 2010, scientists Crippa et al. investigated the effect of cannabis on human pathological anxiety found in SAD. They measured the regional cerebral blood flow at rest in 10 patients with SAD, in two sittings. In the first they used an oral dose of 400mg of placebo and in the second they gave 400 mg of CBD. The results were established using statistical parametric mapping and they found that, compared to the placebo, CBD had a effect on activity in the limbic and paralimbic brain areas. Causing significantly lowered anxiety in the subjects.
Exciting research like this is constantly unearthing new sections of the brain that cannabis has the ability to influence.
3) Evidence that cannabis alleviates insomnia:
A study from 2012 examined how cannabidiol could be used for both anxiety and insomnia. Scott Shannon tested his theory on a 10-year-old child who had experienced abusive behaviour and consequently suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her behaviour included insomnia, outbursts at school, anxiety and self-destructive actions. The subject was administered the Screen for Anxiety Related Disorders and the Sleep Disturbance Scale for Children (SCARED), before taking the CBD to document the results. She was not on any other medication and before bed a CBD supplement dosage of 25mg was taken and a dosage of CBD spray was taken during the daytime. After 5 months the patient was comfortable to sleep in her own bed again, peacefully, and her anxiety was reduced significantly.
Although this study only shows evidence in one person, it’s a great indication that CBD oils can help people suffering from stress related insomnia.
5 Best Marijuana Strains for Seasonal Affective Disorder
1) Super Silver Haze Cannabis Strain
This strain is a beautiful combination between Skunk, Northern Lights, and Haze. It’s a sativa blend that creates a long-lasting high, perfect to boost your mood and make you feel extremely calm. It’s great for anxiety and paranoia, helping you focus your thoughts so you can fully relax into the smoke. A good choice for those feeling irritability because of SAD as it allows you to completely mellow and forget any frustrations you may have had. The combination of citrus and earthy flavors also makes it incredibly tasty. It is definitely a strain to add to the list of favorites.
How this cannabis strain helps: A strain that helps calm the mind and allows you to forget any built-up stress for sufferers of SAD.
2) AC/DC Cannabis Strain
The strain AC/DC is a hybrid with heritage from the CBD-dominant strain Cannatonic. It has generously passed on its CBD process, which means it has a lot of medicinal merit. It’s a great stress reliever and its mellow hit will quickly relax the smoker and relieve any anxiety that has been building up. It has a very low THC level, meaning it’s not very psychoactive and won’t produce a huge high – that’s why it’s a perfect choice for SAD sufferers to use. It won’t over-stimulate the brain, meaning it also doesn’t encourage the munchies – another plus for those whose depression can cause overeating.
How this cannabis strain helps: A great stress reliever that doesn’t stimulate your appetite.
3) Chocolope Cannabis Strain
Chocolope is a hybrid between the two sativa dominant strains Chocolate Thai and Cannalope Haze. It has a very high THC content which creates a very uplifting high that very much motivates the smoker. It’s also has a great earthy taste with hints of chocolate and coffee. One of the few strains that leaves you feeling bright and optimistic rather than lethargic. This can make it a great option for those suffer from SAD in the dark winter months, when you often feel zapped of energy and drowsy. A perfect strain for a morning smoke when you need a good pick-me-up.
How this cannabis strain helps: A great strain to wake you up and make you feel positive and optimistic.
4) Afgoo Cannabis Strain
Afgoo is an indica-dominant strain created from Afghani indica and Maui Haze. It has an uplifting quality that many describe as producing creative thoughts before seducing into a deep sleep. It’s a good option for people who struggle with insomnia or poor-quality sleep. Because of its sleep-inducing properties, it can also be very relaxing and subdue the smoker into a positive state. Be careful though, because this strain does promote the munchies, so if you find you suffer from over-eating generally, keep some healthy snacks nearby.
THC: 14% and 28%
How this cannabis strain helps: Great if SAD makes you stressed or you suffer from insomnia.
5) Pineapple Express Cannabis Strain
Pineapple Express is a potent strain originating from Trainwreck and Hawaiian. It’s a sativa-dominant strain that has an intense burst of tropical flavor. You are likely to get notes of pineapple (of course), fresh apple, pine, and a sweet tropical blend. But its not only smoked for the taste; this strain gives you a lot of energy thanks to its huge THC levels. You will sink into euphoric, tropical bliss that will fight away your winter blues. It’s a strain that will raise your happiness levels to make you feel on cloud nine – tasting just as good as it feels.
How this cannabis strain helps: This strain is great to boost your mood and energy, it also tastes amazing.
Final Thoughts about Cannabis as a Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder and Why Marijuana is so Effective
Weather you have suffered from SAD for years have only just discovered it affects you – using cannabis as an ailment can be a great option. It’s clear much more research needs to be conducted to learn a greater amount about its beneficial properties and its effect on hormones such as serotonin and melatonin. But it certainly feels like we are moving in a confident direction.
Many strains can have a very positive impact on people struggling with SAD. But it’s important if you are suffering from many of these symptoms to visit your doctor, so you can discuss the best method of prevention for you.