Cannabis 101: What Does Weed Do to You?

How cannabis affects both body and mind is an issue which has dominated headlines, not only in the U.S., but globally. But how much of the information we receive daily about this controversial drug is correct? With many states legalising cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use, and a rise in popularity to do so, we are looking at both the physical and mental effects of cannabis and how they are still very much debated.

Biological Process

The easiest way to understand the effects of cannabis consumption and how it influences our endocannabinoid system is by looking at our biology. This system is found in the brain and controls aspects of our mind, including mood, appetite, memory and pain – many of the variables connected to cannabis. The endocannabinoid system contains neurons which release electrical charges; typically after firing signals they become unresponsive to prevent them from over reacting.

Both CBD and THC, two active compounds found in the plant Cannabis sativa, hijack this system. For example, Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, resembles a natural transmitter found in the system called anandamide, and causes the transmitters to over-fire. The over firing of the transmitters is what keeps us focused on one thought or idea, until another one that feels equally important, takes hold. In other words, it causes what is known as the high.

Let’s dive a little deeper and explore the two main compounds, THC and CBD.

How Does CBD Work?

Both CBD, or cannabidiol, and THC are 2 of at least 80 chemical compounds found in cannabis; they have an almost identical chemical structure, but they play different roles in the brain. While THC can fit easily into the CB1 receptor, the part of our brain that controls aspects of pleasure and motivation, CBD does not. The compound finds other receptors in the endocannabinoid system to fit into, which affects us in different ways. Because both compounds produce varying effects, it’s important to pick a product that suits your needs. Products that tend to contain high levels of CBD are:

Medicinal Use of CBD

CBD products are not thought to be psychoactive, which means the compound does not produce a high or feeling of euphoria. In fact, the national centre of biotechnology published a journal in 2005 supporting this claim and found that when the chemical was administered to their patients, it produced anti-inflammatory properties instead.

They also found evidence that the chemical is positively affecting a variety of other areas in our body, including:

  • Pain relief
  • Anticonvulsant activity
  • Muscle relaxant
  • Anxiety
  • Neuroprotection
  • Anti-oxidants
  • Anti-psychotic activity

CBD is also used as a treatment for other common issues such as; seizures, nausea, migraines and depression. Many studies have been conducted examining the effects of CBD in order to determine how safe it is to consume and how helpful it can be for a variety of disorders.

One study, conducted at the university of Sao Paulo in 2011, examined the use of CBD on one of the most common social disorders, anxiety. A disorder thought to affect roughly 18% of the United States population. In the study, Bergamaschi MM et al. gathered 24 patients who were asked to participate in a public speaking event, a task many of us would consider anxiety-producing. Before the event patients received either a single dose of CBD or placebo, and were tested on mood, blood pressure and heart rate. These tests were conducted before, during and after their bout of public speaking.

The study found that the placebo group suffered from much higher levels of anxiety, discomfort and cognitive impairment, whereas the CBD group showed reduced anxiety, discomfort and impairment in their speech.

Studies like this one show how CBD could have the potential to combat a variety of disorders and grievances. Not only is there evidence to suggest it may be an important tool to combat anxiety, but many scientists believe that it could help physical disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, insomnia, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.

Despite this, there are many anxieties about potential side effects of cannabis. However, research suggests that problems with CBD use tend to occur when used with other drugs rather than independently. It’s clear that more research needs to be conducted into CBD and its use as a long-term preventive action.

How Does THC Work?

THC is known to have psychoactive properties, and this means it affects us psychologically. When THC reacts to the endocannabinoid system it releases dopamine which creates the feeling of euphoria. We achieve dopamine release in several other common ways, such as by exercising or consuming proteins. However, a THC high can be known to induce hallucinations, which is why it is best known for recreational use.

THC levels in a product can vary depending on the desired effect. For instance, in hashish oil, it is typical to find 20 percent of THC in the product, whereas on average the concentration in marijuana is 1 to 5 percent. If used recreationally, this can vary dramatically depending on how quick the user wants to reach a high.

Different methods of intake can also affect how quickly the drug reaches the endocannabinoid system and how long the high lasts. The most common methods are:

  • Smoking
  • Gravity bong
  • Vaping
  • Dabbing
  • Oral ingestion
  • Sprays
  • Tinctures
  • Topical methods

While smoking cannabis is traditionally the most popular method, vaping has been increasingly favoured because it poses less health risks – a trend that mirrors the tobacco industry. Methods such as sprays and tinctures are often used as a way of controlling dosage and avoiding any smoke inhalation. On the other hand, oral ingestion, commonly associated with pot brownies, has a slightly different purpose.

Edibles that have high levels of THC can take up to two hours to take effect, with the consequent high not only producing a stronger effect but lasting for up to 8 hours. This occurs in edibles because THC travels through the digestive system and reaches the liver relatively quickly, where it turns into 11-hydroxy-THC. Although there are few modern studies investigating the potency of 11-hydroxy-THC, one study in 1973 noted this effect.

Lemberger et al. conducted an experiment with 9 men who were frequent users of cannabis. They injected each with 1mg of 11-hydroxy-THC and then they were injected with 1mg of THC. All the subjects claimed they experienced a high “more intense than that previously experienced after smoking marihuana.” They also noted intense psychological effects after the initial injection of 11-hydroxy-THC.

Because of this, it’s not surprising that the biggest problems edibles can pose is an overdose of cannabis, as people become impatient to receive a high and they tend to over-consume. This can lead to a temporary effect of dizziness and nausea, which often dissipates with water and rest.

Side Effects of THC

This is important to note, as some side effects of cannabis do weaken concentration and use of motor skills. It is also thought to heighten the effects of alcohol when consumed together. Unlike CBD, more is known about the temporary side effects of THC; these include:

  • Red eyes
  • Slower reaction times
  • Memory loss
  • Weakened motor skills
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased appetite and sense of smell

Despite this, the drug is still considered safe, but it’s important to stay in a secure environment when consuming it and be aware of the effect it may have on other medication you may be taking. Like CBD, little research has been done on the effect of long-term THC use, but as the drug becomes legalized in more states, there is no doubt that its popularity will influence research.

Medicinal Use of THC

Although we associate THC with recreational use, this compound has additional merits in the medical field. This is often overshadowed because of its negative side effects. THC is known to help with a variety of conditions, such as

  • Pain
  • Muscle Spasticity
  • Glaucoma
  • Insomnia
  • Low appetite
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety

One of the most common effects of consuming a high concentrate of THC is an increased appetite. Even after finishing a meal you can find you become hungry, but why is this? Scientists discovered that along with controlling aspects of pleasure, the chemical can turn off the switch that tells us we are full. Combined with an acute sense of smell, it can lead us feeling ravenous. Many scientists believe because of this it may be used to combat anorexia and other health related issues that cause either low appetite or extreme weight loss.

While no long-term study has been conclusive, Gerard et al. conducted a study for the Biological Psychiatry Journal in 2011. With an aim of finding a way to promote our chemical relationship with appetite, he used 16 female bulimia nervosa patients and 14 anorexia nervosa patients. The study investigated whether their endocannabinoid system was under performing and found that the CB1 receptor, which produces pleasure, was not as active as it should be. Because of the known relationship between the CB1 receptor and THC, the conclusion of the study was that it’s ‘possible’ that doses of THC may be helpful for both disorders.

As the most common illicit drug in North America, it’s not surprising that cannabis has become the center of a media storm. Pulled between those who fear the negative side effects and those who are excited about its potential in the medical community. In the future increased research into long-term recreational and medical use of cannabis will give us a much clearer idea of its effect on the endocannabinoid system and how that influences behaviour. It’s undeniable that cannabis has an interesting role to play in the medical world.

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