Last year, painkiller abuse claimed more lives than the Vietnam War claimed U.S. Soldiers. It’s no surprise, then, that more and more consumers are seeking less harmful alternatives to commonly prescribed painkillers. In fact, a survey published last year found that 63 percent of Canadian medical cannabis patients preferred the natural remedy to prescription drugs.Of those, 30 percent chose cannabis over opioid painkillers.
However, while opioids have been a hot topic over the past few years, new research suggests that there may be another epidemic among us: overuse of antidepressants.
While the drugs are often prescribed to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, data from McMaster University suggests that the medications significantly increase the risk of death not related to depression.
In a meta-analysis published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, Associate Professor Paul Andrews and his team discovered that those on antidepressants face 33 percent greater risk of dying than non-consuming controls. The analysis included data from hundreds of thousands of patients across several different studies.
Another 14 percent of participants taking the drugs also faced a greater risk of cardiovascular complications than their control counterparts. These complications include heart attack and stroke.Why the increased risk? The most common type of antidepressant, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), can have an impact on some of the most vital organs in the body, not just the brain.
“We are very concerned by these results,” says Andrews to Science. “They suggest that we shouldn’t be taking antidepressant drugs without understanding precisely how they interact with the body.”
Yet, even without a firm understanding of the long-term physiological effects of SSRIs, they are still among the most prescribed medications in Western countries.
Over the past 15 years, rates of antidepressant consumption have jumped around the world. In the United States, consumption increased by 65 percent between 1999 and 2014. An approximate one in six Americans has been prescribed antidepressants. In fact, no other country consumes as many antidepressants as the United States.
In Canada, an estimated 86 out of every 1,000 people take some sort of antidepressant drug. This places Canada fourth on the list. Australians are a little more unhappy, with 89 out of every 1,000 consuming an antidepressant drug.
Unfortunately for many patients and prescribers, this new research places both parties between a rock and a hard place when it comes to finding safe and effective treatments. While antidepressants may have harmful side effects in the long-term, untreated depression can result in suicide.
With such high stakes, it’s not surprising that some patients are foregoing their conventional treatments in place of a more controversial natural remedy, cannabis.
It’s surprising given the herb’s euphoric reputation, but mental health ailments like anxiety and depression are some of the most common reasons why consumers pick up the herb.
A number of early preclinical studies have shown that cannabis compounds like cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) do have antidepressant properties. There is some animal evidence that suggests high doses of THC may exaggerate symptoms of depression, yet low to moderate doses have shown the opposite effect. Similarly, CBD is currently under investigation in the UK as an adjunct treatment for those with severe mental health ailments, like psychotic disorders.
Though cannabis is considered to have a large margin of safety, impactful clinical trials on cannabis or cannabis compounds for depression are few and far between. Years of legal barriers to research have blocked scientists from taking a serious look at the plant as a viable treatment for mental health ailments.
Yet, the lack of clinical trials hasn’t stopped patients from taking their chances with the herb. In the survey conducted among medical cannabis patients, 12 percent of respondents reported that they chose to consume the herb over pharmaceutical antidepressants.
Similarly, research published by Health Affairs found that Medicare dollars spent on antidepressant drugs have decreased in medical cannabis states. In total, medical cannabis laws saved Medicare $165 million in various prescription drug sales.
Numerous health advocates, including U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, have proposed investigating cannabis in a harm-reduction approach to the opioid crisis. Perhaps the same can be true for antidepressants.
Drugs like Prozac and other SSRIs may increase your risk of death in the long-haul, but how many have died from long-term cannabis complications? To this day, there has yet to be a single, reported case.