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Does CBD have potential to treat postnatal depression and anxiety?



Postnatal or postpartum depression is unfortunately common among new mothers, and the mood disorder can also affect new fathers, too. This type of depression can cause severe anxiety and deep sadness, seemingly inexplicable emotions for new parents. Researchers aren’t sure what causes postnatal depression, and as many choose not to talk about it, the condition remains something of an unknown.

The anxious symptoms a new mom may face, combined with low-self esteem and embarrassment, may make her reluctant to talk about her difficulties and find a working mediation.

Depressed people are often advised to take antidepressant drugs, however treatments like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be troublesome. Patients typically have to wait several weeks for the antidepressant effects to kick in, and SSRIs are not beneficial for all types of depression. Some moms opt for counselling and talking therapy to develop new techniques on how to deal with their negative emotions and anxieties.

But interestingly, cannabis is becoming a popular, albeit controversial treatment for postnatal depression. Several new moms have reported positive stories from using cannabidiol (CBD) products, which are non-psychoactive and non-intoxicating because they don’t contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Multiple studies have demonstrated CBD’s anti-anxiety effects, and the cannabinoid also appears to provide sustained relief from depression, restoring regions of the brain associated with the disorder, including the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. 

Medical researchers are more confident about the therapeutic properties of cannabis than ever before, now that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) has been discovered – this is the system in which the plant’s primary medicinal constituents, cannabinoids, are active. The ECS is implicated in a myriad of psychological and physical health variables, such as mood, cognition, memory, appetite, immune system response, bone health and pain perception. The system consists of neurotransmitters, known as endocannabinoids, and cannabinoid receptors, which can be affected by endocannabinoids and cannabinoids.

How big an issue is postpartum depression?

There is a lack of research on postpartum depression, however a study carried out between 2004 and 2005 by the Centers for Disease of Control and Prevention indicated that more than half a million women were affected by the condition in the United States. The self-reporting study reached out to women in 17 states, with around 15 percent of new mothers indicating that they had suffered from postpartum depression. Percentages were above average among the low education and income brackets.
Worryingly, the researchers proposed that postnatal depression could be even more widespread, and that not all cases were picked up because the study required mothers to self-report their symptoms. Moreover, the research was only focussed on postnatal depression, and those with symptoms more aligned to postnatal anxiety were not included in the final figures.
Feelings of being an inferior parent and then guilt because of it were the most common symptoms of depression. Some mothers reported feeling disconnected from their baby. The burden of responsibility of being a new mom means that many just struggle on without help, trying to cope the best they can – some parents may not even realize that the emotions they are going through are not normal, thinking that it’s just part and parcel of the job. This is reflected in the concerning statistic from Postpartum Progress that 85 percent of PPD-affected mothers do not seek out professional treatment.
Even though CBD is non-psychoactive, and much different to regular cannabis, there is still a strong stigma about using it as a new mother. Those who don’t understand the herb and its effects, and this can even be doctors who are not familiar with cannabis, can be sceptical, hesitant and even totally against its use. However, the World Health Organization has sought to clarify concerns surrounding CBD, with their decision to describe the cannabinoid as having no abuse potential, following a meeting of the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence in late 2017.
And the research in recent decades is completely flipping conventional cannabis wisdom. For example, instead of triggering certain mental illnesses, CBD and other non-psychoactive cannabinoids may help to treat them. CBD can also be used to boost concentration, and enhance cognition and memory – in the past, cannabis was only thought to be a hindrance in these departments. A study on adult rats released in 2015 found that cannabinoids could help to regrow the hippocampus, which is where memories are created and stored.

New mothers should, however, be wary about taking cannabis products with THC, due to the short-term impairment which could cloud judgment. Furthermore, it is unknown – although perhaps unlikely – that THC could present a neonatal risk to the mother, which could affect breastfeeding. Hence why it makes sense to stick with safer CBD products. There is little scientific evidence on the role of the ECS in breastfeeding, but research published in 2005 showed that breastmilk contains endocannabinoids. Therefore, it’s possible that cannabinoids could interfere with this process. Considering that breastfeeding can be an even harder task than normal for mothers suffering from postpartum depression, it’s understandable that they may harbour reservations about using a product which may affect this.

THC could also aggravate postnatal anxiety, as the mind-altering substance is notorious for setting off symptoms in those with generalized anxiety disorder. THC can increase activity in the brain by blocking the GABA neurotransmitter, which is responsible for keeping a balance between excitation and inhibition in the brain. Intriguingly, CBD has the exact opposite effect on GABA, increasing concentrations of the neurotransmitter by enhancing the binding affinity of GABA-A receptors.

Why CBD could help a new mom

There are a few ways in which CBD could help a new mother with postpartum depression, and these go beyond just treating issues of low mood. Breastfeeding is preferable to formulated milk, but not at the expense of forming a strong connection with the baby – if the mother is finding breastfeeding too much of a challenge, then it may be worth stopping.
If not breastfeeding, then there’s no longer a concern on the effect that CBD could have on endocannabinoid levels. There is no official blueprint to being a mother, and if some are finding that CBD edibles and other CBD options are allowing them to be a better and more confident parent, then who are we to judge?

Which CBD products are best for new mothers?

The cannabis industry is in a constant state of change, and new products are hitting dispensaries and online shelves with every passing month – there are, however, some subtle differences in these products that new mothers need to be aware of.

Most cannabis advocates speak of the benefits of whole-plant cannabis extract, as the evidence available indicates that cannabinoids have more therapeutic value when consumed together – this is because there is a synergistic effect between the compounds. However, as new mothers are not advised to take THC, these products are not recommended in this situation.

CBD products are either made with CBD-isolate or from a full-plant extract – the latter is described as full-spectrum CBD, and may offer some synergy, despite the minimal amount of THC. However, as few of the cannabinoids in cannabis have been studied and mothers must take extra precaution, CBD-isolate products could be more suitable, as the only cannabinoid used is the CBD. For somebody with anxiety, not knowing exactly what’s in the product could cause an anxiety attack.

Final thought

Those suffering from postnatal depression or anxiety should be wary about self-medicating their condition, and ideally speak with a doctor or other medical professional with an understanding of cannabis. Also bearing mind that treating depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions often requires more than medication – getting counselling or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also be necessary. However, the encouraging research on CBD indicates that the substance could also help make life easier for a new mother or father.

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