Although psychotherapy and pharmaceutical medications are typically recommended for treating specific disorders, like bipolar, a new study has found that cannabis could have “uniquely beneficial effects” for those affected.
Around 46 million people around the world have symptoms of bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is generally characterized by atypical shifts in mood, energy, activity, concentration and ability to move through day-to-day tasks. It’s known for causing ranging, sometimes erratically shifting, moods ranging from a manic, energized “high” or “up,” to more depressive periods, leaving people feeling “low” or “down,” often sad, indifferent, or demotivated.
There are three types of bipolar disorder. Each involves similar changes, though bipolar I disorder is characterized by high and low periods lasting at least seven days, sometimes lasting weeks at a time. Bipolar II is characterized by less severe episodes, and cyclothymic disorder references recurring hypomanic and depressive symptoms not intense enough to qualify as bipolar I or II episodes.
Researchers referenced in the study, presented at the Neuroscience 2022 conference, that cannabis use is already highly prevalent among people with bipolar disorder. The question was, exactly how helpful is cannabis in alleviating the symptoms?
To pin down the effects of cannabis on those with bipolar, researchers recruited people with and without the disorder, along with cannabis users and non-users in each group, analyzing each combination. Participants were tested on cognitive battery measuring risky decision-making, reward-learning, and sustained attention.
Ultimately, researchers confirmed that cannabis indeed could hold some special benefits for those with bipolar, specifically in helping to reduce risky decision-making. Researchers also suggested that cannabis reduces the dopaminergic activity in the brain, which helps suppress symptoms, and found that cannabis had moderate effects on punishment sensitivity and sustained attention.
“Chronic cannabis use was associated with a modest improvement in some cognitive functions,” authors noted. “Cannabis use was also associated with a normalization of risky decision making and effortful motivation in people with [bipolar disorder], but not healthy participants. Thus, chronic cannabis use may have uniquely beneficial effects in people with [bipolar disorder].”
Researchers also cited previous studies, which suggest that some people with bipolar disorder have increased dopaminergic activity because of reduced dopamine transporter expression. Because chronic cannabis use is shown to reduce dopamine release, chronic cannabis use could result in a “return to dopamine homeostasis,” which in turn could help normalize their deficits in goal-directed behaviors. They concluded they are “engaged” in additional studies in order to explore this potential.
As many folks with bipolar already treat their symptoms with cannabis, and many regions with legal medicinal cannabis consider it a qualifying condition, this is far from the first study looking at cannabis and bipolar disorder. Historically, other researchers have also found positive correlations between cannabis and bipolar symptom management.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School, McLean Hospital, and Tufts University found a link between cannabis and improved symptoms in bipolar disorder in 2018 clinical trial data, also confirming cannabis does not negatively impact cognitive performance. They also found that cannabis use resulted in reduced scores for depression, anger, and tension.
More generally, a 2020 review conducted by University of New Mexico researchers found cannabis effectively treated symptoms of depression. A 2020 BMC Psychiatry report also found that whole plant cannabis and plant-based cannabinoids effectively improve moods and sleep, reduce anxiety, and promote anti-psychotic action.
Of course, we’ve got a ways to go and much more to explore before plant medicine becomes the go-to for mental health conditions like bipolar, but studies like these affirm we’ve got the right idea.