This story was updated with new reporting and data on October 11, 2019.
As the days get darker and the weather gets colder, many people notice that their moods experience a similar change. While this is often chalked up to the “winter blues,” in some cases it can be a sign of something more serious: Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Like many mental health issues, it’s proven to be a tricky one to treat with traditional methods — which may explain why CBD is now being suggested a potential solution.
According to Cleveland Clinic, SAD affects around half a million Americans every year. Scientists aren’t sure of its exact cause, but most associate it with a lack of sunlight (and the chemical changes within the body this can cause). Although it’s possible to experience SAD during any season, it tends to follow a familiar pattern — symptoms first appear in the fall, get worse during winter, and gradually taper off by springtime. These can include:
Treatments vary from person to person, but they often include some form of talk therapy, light therapy (which involves sitting close to a device that mimics the effects of natural sunlight), or prescription antidepressants. While these methods do work for many people — the Mayo Clinic reports that light therapy, in particular, is surprisingly effective — others still find themselves struggling to cope with seasonal changes.
It’s little surprise, then, that they’ve started to wonder if CBD could be a viable alternative.
Although SAD has been the subject of an increasing number of studies in recent years — including a controversial 2015 review in the journal Clinical Psychological Science that concluded it’s not a real thing — none have specifically examined how CBD might affect people living with the condition.
However, researchers have found that the non-intoxicating cannabinoid could potentially be useful in treating a number of SAD’s most notable symptoms. While many of these studies come with caveats (such as small sample sizes or the lack of human subjects), they still provide some indication that people who don’t respond to conventional treatment methods might benefit from giving CBD a try.
For many people, SAD involves disruptions to the body’s circadian rhythms, its levels of melatonin, or both. The end result is that they don’t get the proper amount of sleep, leaving them lethargic and unable to think clearly.
Anecdotally, many people have found CBD to be helpful for sleep problems. In fact, this was third on the list of the most common reasons Americans use CBD, according to a recent Gallup poll. And while popular enthusiasm about a product isn’t always a sign of its efficacy, there does seem to be something to the idea that CBD could be useful in this regard.
A number of scientific studies indicate that CBD could help people sleep better, and the way it does so makes it well-suited to addressing these issues. That’s because, unlike sleep aids such as Ambien, CBD doesn’t knock you out before bed — instead, it regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Essentially, this means that it can help you stay more alert and focused during the day, which naturally makes you more tired at night.
Anxiety is also one of the most common reasons that Americans use CBD — 20 percent of Gallup poll respondents said they used it to treat their symptoms, making it the second-most popular motivation for using the cannabinoid (the first was pain, in case you were wondering).
Again, there’s a fair amount of scientific evidence to support the idea that CBD could help people manage anxiety. A sizable number of studies have been conducted with human subjects (a relative rarity in CBD research), and the results have been encouraging: The authors of a 2015 review in the journal Neurotherapeutics put it succinctly when they wrote, “Current evidence indicates CBD has considerable potential as a treatment for multiple anxiety disorders,” though they stressed the need for more clinical trials.
One of the reasons why researchers believe CBD is effective at reducing anxiety involves its effects on the brain’s levels of serotonin — which also play a key role in its ability to treat another common SAD symptom.
Most medical professionals consider SAD to be a form of depression (in fact, it’s sometimes called “seasonal depression”). This condition has also been linked with lower levels of serotonin, which is why many antidepressant drugs target the brain’s receptors that produce this hormone.
The severe side effects associated with traditional antidepressants have spurred interest in whether CBD could be a viable treatment for depression. So far, the results have been encouraging — according to a 2014 review of the research on CBD and depression, “most of the studies demonstrated a good interaction between CBD and the 5-HT1A neuro-receptor,” better known as the serotonin receptor. This led the review’s authors to conclude that CBD’s prospects for becoming a viable alternative to conventional antidepressants were “very promising.”