People with bipolar affective disorder, sometimes called manic depression, suffer from volatile mood swings that can range from periods of euphoria to periods of deep depression. These extreme moods not only interfere with activities of daily living, but can lead to dangerous, impulsive and high-risk behavior, as well as suicidal thoughts.
Bipolar affective disorder is a lifelong condition that usually develops during the teen years. Current treatments, including psychotherapy, mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and antipsychotics, leave much to be desired. But recent research on medical marijuana is providing new hope: Some studies suggest that cannabis may be a natural mood stabilizer that can help patients with bipolar affective disorder.
Treatments for Bipolar Affective Disorder
About 5.5 million American adults (2.5% of the population) have bipolar affective disorder. Of these, 82.9% are considered severe.
Current treatments for bipolar affective disorder are aimed at controlling the extreme moods. However, each treatment has drawbacks:
- Mood stabilizers, including lithium, can cause nausea, dizziness, excessive thirst, diarrhea and have been linked to birth defects.
- Lamatrogine, an oral anti-seizure drug that is sometimes prescribed for mood disorders, can cause blurred or double vision, clumsiness and serious skin rash.
- Antidepressants and electroconvulsive therapy can trigger rapid mood cycling.
- Antipsychotics can cause mania.
Many bipolar patients self-medicate with alcohol and marijuana, and substance abuse rates approach 60%. Some studies have shown that substance abuse can increase disease severity and suicide rates. Yet other studies have reported that patients who self-medicate with marijuana report less mania and depression.
Brain Chemistry & Bipolar Disorder
While the causes of bipolar affective disorder aren’t clear, it’s thought to have a strong genetic component. It could also be related to physical changes in the brain. Magnetic resonance images (MRI) have shown that the brains of those with bipolar affective disorder have "decreases in the volume of the brain's prefrontal cortex and its subcortical connections sites, including the amygdala."
The prefrontal cortex is involved in decision making and behavior, while the amygdala is responsible for emotions, mood and motivation. All of these functions are affected by bipolar disorder. And cannabis, which can have profound effects on brain function may have a role to play.
Cannabis May Be a Natural Mood Stabilizer for Those With Bipolar Disorder
In a literature review, researchers from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom examined the relationship between marijuana and bipolar affective disorder. The authors of the study note that the effects cannabis has shown in other conditions, such as improved mood, may have applications in bipolar disorder.
They note that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary constituent of cannabis, has anti-anxiety, hypnotic and antidepressant effects that can improve mood and promote a sense of well-being. These benefits have been recorded in healthy subjects as well as those with pain conditions, multiple sclerosis and cancer. The researchers say that this property can be especially helpful during the depressive phases of bipolar disorder.
The authors also examined studies on the antipsychotic effects of cannabidiol (CBD), THC’s counterpart. In the brain, substances called neurotransmitters relay signals between brain cells—this is how your brain receives the messages to carry out life functions. Sometimes these neurotransmitters can become overactive, a phenomenon that’s linked to conditions like attention deficit disorder and anxiety disorder.
It turns out that CBD has an effect on the firing of these neurotransmitters—dampening their signals to the brain when they become overactive. Researchers think that this property can have mood stabilizing actions that have applications in bipolar disorder.
Overall, the authors concluded that both THC and CBD from medical marijuana have similar properties to standard medications being used to treat bipolar affective disorder. Based on this finding, the researchers feel that patients with bipolar affective disorder could benefit from medical marijuana. Their findings also suggest that a placebo-controlled trial involving cannabinoids like THC and CBD should be undertaken to further explore the plant’s benefits.