How Marijuana Affects Your Brain
Millions of Americans are enrolled in state-legalized medical cannabis programs. For many patients, medical marijuana presented new hope as a tool to better manage debilitating symptoms. For many patients, other types of therapies have not been effective (intractable), and doctor-supervised cannabis has positively impacted their quality of life.
As we move forward with all states expected to have legalized medical marijuana within the next 2-4 years, more health research is now possible. Many of the existing restrictions have been removed, which means that researchers can start to definitively answer questions about medical marijuana and health.
Because of the wide adoption and use of cannabis in the United States, it is important to understand not only the benefits but the possible impact it can have on population health. Ultimately the goal is to solve many of the remaining mysteries about marijuana, including how and why it works for some people.
Some of the greatest concerns researchers and public health organizations have about cannabis use are the long-term impacts it may have on patients. The good part of cannabis is that it can help people with different health conditions. But since there are no long-term studies about cannabis, it’s difficult to say what risks there may be in the future, particularly for individuals who use medical marijuana daily.
This is Your Brain on Marijuana?
You are probably familiar with the “Say No To Drugs” campaign launched by Former First Lady Nancy Regan. And some of the public health messages, like the egg frying in a pan, with the caption “this is your brain on drugs.” Other types of illicit substances, like cocaine or heroin, have more clinical data available compared to cannabis studies.
While cannabis has been around much longer than most illicit substances, there is a similar concern. Other types of controlled substances have an increased risk of drug abuse.
What is your brain like on marijuana? What is happening inside different regions of your brain and central nervous system after you consume it? We’ll talk about the concerns that some medical experts have and provide some suggestions on reducing the risk of developing long-term impairments caused by excessive cannabis use.
Some surprising new studies suggest that cannabinoids have the potential to regenerate damaged brain cells. As much concern as there is that cannabis may lead to cognitive decline, memory loss, and other impairments, could it help prevent dementia? Or improve health outcomes for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease?
Let’s take a look at what we know today about medical cannabis and your brain. And share some of the concerns, as well as potential positives that cannabis may provide in terms of protecting cognitive health.
What Happens Inside Your Body After Consuming Marijuana?
The easy answer to this question? Well, you get high. But between the cause (consumption) and effect (psychoactive and physiological influence) of cannabis, there is a lot going on because cannabinoids affect every cell in your body.
If you have read some of our other articles, you know that the body has a complex biological system geared toward cannabinoids. Whether you believe in the Creation Story or the “Big Bang Theory,” one thing is clear; the human body evolved to use and react to cannabinoids.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) controls all of our essential bodily functions. Our body was biologically designed with cannabinoid receptors! How is that for proof that humans were meant to use the healing herb?
From a biological standpoint, the endocannabinoid system reacts to ingested cannabinoids (such as CBD, THC, CBG, and CBN), not as a foreign substance. But something our bodies also produce naturally inside of us. In fact, the CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors are present in the human brain structure early in fetal development. They are an essential part of brain development.
The endocannabinoid system regulates:
- Emotional Behavior
- Pain Sensitivity
- Immune System Functioning
- Internal Body Temperature
On that list, you can start to see the health conditions and symptoms that medical cannabis can help with. Patients may be approved to use medical marijuana for anxiety and depression, chronic intractable pain, appetite stimulation (or suppressant), and insomnia.
Many chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Crohn’s disease are believed to be caused by inflammation, and doctor-supervised marijuana use could help. Some patients also use cannabidiol (CBD) supplements to help control inflammation.
Can You Increase Cannabinoid Receptors in the Brain?
You may not increase the number of endocannabinoid receptors in the brain. But there are many ways that you can help those receptors perform better. There are a variety of different foods that have been clinically shown to support healthy ECS functioning.
Before we get into a list of foods that can help your endocannabinoid system, the most important dietary change you can make (which may help medical marijuana use provide better results) is Omega-6 fatty acid.
Monitor the amount you are eating because the average American diet has too much Omega-6. And some clinical studies have shown that too much Omega-6 can actually impair or downregulate cannabinoid receptors. And also increase inflammation in the body.
The following foods are healthy sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, which can help balance an over abundance of Omega-6 and help your cannabinoid receptors work better:
- Eggs (omega-3 enriched).
- Hemp oil or seeds.
- Chia seeds.
- Flax seeds or oil.
- Dark chocolate (70% Cacao or higher).
- Water hydration.
Ingesting natural sources of terpenes can also help your brain process cannabinoids better and may help marijuana users get better results for symptom management. Some of the terpenes you should target in your diet include:
A natural terpene found in herbs like black pepper, oregano, cinnamon, and cloves. When you consume these herbs, it can help prevent the breakdown of cannabinoids in your body. That can help achieve higher endocannabinoid performance. The herbs can also help reduce chronic inflammation.
The active ingredient that can ramp up your endocannabinoid system is curcumin. Researchers are not sure exactly how it works, but in clinical studies, curcumin has been shown to help raise endocannabinoid levels.
Originating as an ancient medicinal in Peru, maca won’t help you increase endocannabinoid efficiency raw. It has to be dried and then cooked, according to studies, in order to release the activated ingredient. Bioactive macamides and macaenes are created when maca is decarboxylated (similar to the cannabis plant).
Macamides from the maca root affect the brain in some positive ways. They both preserve and increase levels of endocannabinoids. Some of the endocannabinoids, like Anandamide, can be increased and promote feelings of happiness and euphoria. Anandamide inhibits an enzyme called FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase).
The macamides have an almost identical chemical structure to Anandamide, which confuses FAAH and slows the breakdown of the bliss endocannabinoid (Anandamide). This chemical reaction may hold clues to why certain strains of cannabis and the entourage effect of terpenes and other cannabinoids can sustain a “happy mood” for longer periods of time.
Probiotics, Prebiotics, Pesticides, and Fermented Foods
Kombucha is more than a fad food; it is a fermented beverage that doesn’t taste that great. But inside of Kombucha is fermented enzymes and nutrients that can give your endocannabinoid system a big boost.
Taking probiotics and prebiotics can also help improve endocannabinoid functioning by supporting cannabinoid receptors found in the digestive tract. Where possible, try to purchase organic food because it has nominal to zero levels of pesticides. Many common agricultural pesticides weaken the endocannabinoid system.
Avoid Alcohol and Phthalates to Protect Endocannabinoid Functioning
Phthalates enter our bodies in a variety of ways. They can be transferred from plastic containers (including water bottles) that are not BPA. Plastic wrap is another place where Phthalates hide. And they do a number on your ECS and the natural balance of hormones in your body.
Try to keep alcoholic drinks to a minimum. While legal to consume for adults, alcohol is a toxin, and, like other unhealthy substances, studies have shown moderate to high levels of alcohol intake reduce endocannabinoid signaling.
How Your Body Absorbs THC and Other Cannabinoids
Understanding how your body processes cannabinoids and THC specifically, can help you make the most of therapeutic marijuana use. First, it is important to know that different routes offer different levels of bioavailability.
What is bioavailability? It refers to how quickly your body absorbs or metabolizes nutrients or substances. For example, the fastest way to metabolize cannabis is through inhalation. That is because THC and cannabis metabolites enter the bloodstream quickly through the lungs. The peak absorption period is 6-10 minutes after inhalation, and up to 35% of THC is absorbed by this method.
If you have ever tried edibles, you know that there is a big difference between smokable cannabis and consuming them in a gummy or capsule. When THC is consumed orally and enters the digestive tract, it can take up to ninety (90) minutes before the effect is felt.
What’s up with the delay? It is because THC must be digested before it can be broken down and enter the bloodstream. About 65% of THC passes into the bloodstream when absorbed as an edible or capsule, with less waste.
Interestingly, some people prefer edibles because the onset of the psychoactive and physical effects of marijuana is slower. But the “high” from an edible can also last much longer, as it metabolized into CYP2C and CYP3A in the liver.
Whatever percentage of THC and cannabis metabolites remain after being processed by the human liver arrive at the heart and become circulated through the bloodstream. However, both THC and 11-OH-THC pass the blood/brain barrier at the same time.
Your Brain on Medical Marijuana: How Does It Work?
You may not be sure how marijuana affects your brain. But when the psychoactive and physiological effects of marijuana start, you will probably begin to notice different sensations. And that is how you know you are high (or getting high) when THC reaches the brain regions, and you begin to feel those effects.
Cannabis can alter a bad mood. It can also work to remove or moderate pain so that it is more bearable for patients. How effective marijuana use is for symptoms is still a scientific mystery. But researchers have learned a lot about Anandamide.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is more powerful (and plentiful) than the endocannabinoid anandamide. When cannabis is ingested, THC starts to “take over” the functions normally handled by Anandamide.
Anandamide Loses the Molecular Tug of War with THC
Anandamide actually breaks down quickly after a neurotransmitter has sent a message. When THC is consumed, it uses the same neural receptors as Anandamide. When you keep consuming multiple tokes, hits, or edible cannabis plant products, you are flooding your neurotransmitters and neural receptors with THC. And it overwhelms our normal self-regulating messaging systems in the brain.
Anandamide is also part of our pleasure and rewards infrastructure in the human brain. It triggers the release of dopamine, which makes you feel happy, satisfied, and relaxed. But THC in higher volumes than Anandamide triggers the release of more dopamine. And since THC sticks around longer than our natural endocannabinoids, the feeling of well-being lasts longer than normal.
Neurotransmitters function much like traffic lights. Two neurotransmitters (GABA, the red light, and Glutamate, the green light) regulate dopamine levels. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) inhibits the production of GABA. That means more green lights and your body is flooded with feel-good dopamine.
But the human brain likes balance. When dopamine levels remain high for a sustained period of time, the brain can press the pause button. No more dopamine, at least until levels normalize again.
Harder to Feel Happy When Not High
Sometimes people who have cannabis use disorder (excessive cannabis intake on a daily basis) can find it more difficult to feel “happy” when they are not high. So, for example, if you used to laugh a lot at a comedy show sober but find that you don’t feel like laughing unless you are high, that could be the reason.
Suppose you need to ingest more medical marijuana to achieve the same psychoactive or physiological effects you are used to. In that case, your brain is also putting the brakes on too much dopamine. This may be the cause of escalating use and increased potency levels by some marijuana users.
How Does Cannabis Affect Brain Regions and Mood?
Many patients feel that cannabis can have a positive impact on their mood. In fact, depression, anxiety and associated symptoms of trauma are frequent motivators for medical marijuana use.
There are different brain regions that THC and other cannabinoids impact. While the CB1 receptors are located throughout the body, the highest concentration of the cannabinoid receptors is in the temporal lobe, the cerebellum, and the neocortex.
Most clinical studies focus on chronic cannabis users. That means people who use moderate to higher potency THC on a daily basis for extended periods of time. But researchers know that the areas of the brain that govern emotional regulation (happiness, sadness, and feelings of stress or anxiety) emanate from the amygdala, the insula, and the insular cortex.
It is not surprising then, to learn that cannabis and THC specifically, can alter our moods, help reduce symptoms of anxiety, or help with relaxation to fall asleep.
Medical Marijuana and Anxiety
Racing thoughts and worries? Anxiety can be caused by early childhood (and adult) trauma. It can cause an individual to be hypervigilant about their surroundings and the people they interact with.
But anxiety is much more than that. Some people with types of anxiety like ADHD can experience periods of manic energy. When they are feeling stressed about a situation (or maybe something that could happen but hasn’t happened yet), they get an energy boost. And can engage in exhausting activities until the anxious thoughts have passed.
The manic periods can last for days, resulting in exhaustion. The downside of ADHD, for example, is the slump that occurs after a manic spell. People with this type of anxiety can feel an emotional and physical crash and fatigue.
Cannabis does not cure any condition, and the same holds true for anxiety. However, when trying to understand how medical marijuana use works for people with anxiety, consider it a temporary reprieve. Like taking a vacation from incessant worry and stress, where the person can quiet the internal chatter and simply relax and enjoy a break from it all.
Both Sativa and Indica strains of cannabis can help with anxiety. Sativa strains may provide relief while allowing marijuana users to remain alert, focused, and coherent whereas Indica strains of cannabis can provide relief but with a more sedative effect.
Hybrid strains of cannabis can present the best of both worlds and are often chosen by individuals who may have anxiety but need pain relief. However, taking too much cannabis or habitual cannabis use disorder can amplify (not help resolve) anxiety symptoms.
How Cannabis May Help With Symptoms of Depression and PTSD
Health care professionals know that patients with clinical depression may struggle with various symptoms. Some of the most common problems people with depression face are lethargy, low mood (sadness), social withdrawal, insomnia, and appetite loss (or binge eating).
Some clinical practice guidelines suggest that cannabis should not be used by patients who suffer from mental health disorders. In some cases, medical marijuana may not help and may actually worsen depressive symptoms. That is because cannabis is both a stimulant and a depressant.
Your mood before you consume cannabis can really matter. Just as medical marijuana can elevate your mood, it can also amplify a bad mood. If you are feeling irritable, depressed, or lonely, and you take cannabis to help, you may find yourself in a worse mood. There may be something that may cause your brain to embrace the negative emotional state you are already in. And no amount of cannabinoids might change that for you if you are in a bad emotional funk.
The experience of euphoria or happiness after consuming cannabis may allow other symptoms to improve. For example, relief of anxiety and insomnia may strengthen a patient to where they are getting more rest. Or effective relief of pain symptoms. And that overall may improve the quality of life for patients suffering from trauma, and more severe types of depression, such as major depressive disorder.
Where Does the Sensation to Eat Come From?
Ah, the dreaded snack attack. It is all good if you are fit and have no problem regulating you healthy body weight. However, if you are using medical marijuana and have difficulties with obesity, the “munchies” can really throw a monkey wrench into your weight loss goals.
Even though you may have just eaten a full meal an hour or two ago, a little bit of cannabis can make you reach for that box of cookies or sugary cereal.
Two parts of the human brain moderate hunger; the hypothalamus and the accumbens. These two areas are also very sensitive to Anandamide. And when THC hijacks the neurons, it also messes up the signals about appetite and cravings for food.
But THC doesn’t actually make you hungry. That is not how it works. Instead, what THC does is send signals that eating is pleasurable. And since dopamine overload is also pleasurable, why not extend happiness? Your brain convinces you that you are hungry because it’s happy and high. Not because you are hungry. It just wants to continue to feel good.
Some strains have more potential to stimulate snacking. It is a matter of the type of cannabis (Sativa, Indica, or Hybrid). Try to remind yourself you really are not eating because you are hungry. And convince yourself to do something else that is equally pleasurable, like creative art, watching a favorite movie, or snuggling with your pet.
Why Do Many People Find Cannabis Provides Pain Relief?
Your natural hormones, neurotransmitters, and receptors all respond to THC like it is an old friend instead of an unknown visitor in the human body. Cannabis increases dopamine levels, which naturally suppress the experience of pain.
But remember how we discussed THC messes up the endocannabinoid messaging systems? By the same token, the state of emotional ease and relaxation that cannabis can provide may also help reduce muscle tension.
Temporarily, THC can help slow or stop pain messaging between the brain and the body. It is not a curative but rather a valuable therapeutic break from pain symptoms. It can be effective for mild to moderate pain. Some patients with intractable chronic pain also report some relief.
Why Do Some Strains of Cannabis Provide a Boost in Energy?
Whether you have a mental health condition or you are taking medications or other therapies that can cause fatigue, medical marijuana may help. That is because THC stimulates the endocannabinoid system, which is also responsible for that energy boost.
People typically choose Sativa cannabis if they are looking for a fatigue-busting strain. The endocannabinoid system also regulates energy. The brain communicates when it is tired and flips the switch when you are feeling high-energy. Marijuana users know that cannabis can provide a big burst of energy, depending on your chosen strain.
Don’t believe Hollywood movies or shows like “Weeds” that depict average marijuana use resulting in couch-crashing fatigue. That’s not the case. If you have a big day ahead of you at home and you pick the right strain? The garage could be cleaned and organized in no time. And the best part? You may be really euphoric while you are completing your chores.
Why Does Time Fly When You Are High?
Have you ever used cannabis at home and found that while you stayed awake, you lost track of time? It is recognized as one of the symptoms of marijuana use, but few people know how or why this happens.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) messes with our brain and internal clock. Some clinical studies of MRI patient scans saw that cannabis reduced blood flow slightly to brain regions, specifically the cerebellum. That is part of the brain that regulates time.
Researchers believe that cannabis increases the speed and volume of neurotransmitter activity. So while our brains are processing faster on cannabis, external time is perceived to slow down or even stop.
Long-Term Use and Concerns About Cognitive Impairment
Memory impairment may be one of marijuana’s long term effects. But researchers do not have enough information or data obtained to understand why this happens to some people. And why other people may use cannabis habitually for decades and not suffer problems with memory impairment.
What researchers do know is that cannabis can cause developmental problems for minors. Many people believe the brain stops developing and reaches maturity around the age of twenty. But studies confirm the human brain regions continue to grow and create cognitive connections until the mid to late twenties.
Adolescent exposure to frequent marijuana use can impede brain development. When minors or college students have THC exposure, it can affect how the brain builds connections. That can reduce functions like attention, learning, memory, and more.
Some clinical trials on animals have linked marijuana use to other health effects when cannabis is consumed under the age of eighteen (18) years. Garnering pediatric approval for medical marijuana can be difficult, and it requires the registration and assistance of a guardian or caregiver.
Parents of children with debilitating conditions like compassionate care (hospice), Tourette’s Syndrome, or severe epilepsy are made aware of the risk. By contrast, those risks are accepted in lieu of the relief that pediatric patients can achieve with medical cannabis.
Does the Human Body Develop a Tolerance to Medical Marijuana?
While people do not believe it is possible, you can actually develop a tolerance to cannabis. As with any other type of drug, over time, the body becomes “used to it.” When that happens, whether it is a prescription medication or even over-the-counter, allergy and pain remedies may become less effective.
There have been many clinical studies to answer questions about cannabis and human tolerance. The medical community wants to understand how much cannabis can be consumed before it becomes less effective. That way, better treatment plans can be established for patients.
At the extreme level of cannabis intolerance is a condition called cannabis hyperemesis syndrome. That is when the human body changes its mind about THC and views it as a toxin instead of a native cannabinoid. Cannabis hyperemesis can prevent patients from ever using cannabis again in the future because it can cause violent vomiting and nausea.
Moderating Use to Reduce Problems with Cannabinoid Tolerance
Many patients wonder how they can reduce or avoid building a tolerance to medical marijuana if they wish to use it on a daily basis. There are many strategies that you can try at home that can be effective. For example, when a patient is experiencing debilitating symptoms of people, the first impulse may be to purchase high-THC products. But that is not the best approach. It takes time, trial and error, to determine what strains may offer the most benefit to you. And the level of THC potency that works best to help manage your symptoms.
First, create a log of the different types of strains and potencies that you try. Make note of any strains that may create unwanted side effects, such as a dry eyes or headaches. Make note of the physical reactions you have to different strains.
Also, make time to record any strains that make you feel anxious or paranoid. Some types of Sativa strains can enhance anxiety instead of reducing it, particularly if they are higher potency or if the patient has clinical anxiety, PTSD, or depression.
Keeping track of your consumption, strains, potencies, and terpenes and monitoring what works is the best bet. Think of your log as a harm reduction journal, helping you reduce your risk of developing a tolerance to cannabis. If it helps with your symptoms better than anything else, choose responsible use.
What Potency of THC Should New Patients Start With?
Physicians recommend starting with lower THC potencies. You can make notes on how effective a 10% THC medical cannabis product is to start. And if you feel that a lower dose of THC is not working as well, you can explore other strains with higher potency levels.
The goal is to find medical cannabis products with the lowest THC level that work for you. The medical community is learning more about the long-term effects of marijuana use. But there is still much to learn, and there are no 20+ year studies currently available.
Responsible use means being educated and aware of the potential risks associated with the daily use of medical marijuana over a loperiodime. Protect your health and minimize your long-term physical or cognitive risks by keeping the THC potency as low as possible.
If you live in a state where adult-use (recreational) cannabis is legalized, you have the choice to purchase it at either a medical or recreational dispensary. However, in terms of the selection of suitable lower-potency cannabis products, your best option is to visit a medical cannabis dispensary.
Medical cannabis dispensaries tend to have more selection for low-THC products. While there are exceptions, most recreational dispensaries focus on higher-potency products and strains. You will get more options and better assistance searching for ideal strains to help with your symptoms at a licensed medical cannabis dispensary.
Should You Reduce the Amount of Medical Cannabis You Use?
Medical marijuana has helped millions of Americans live better, with less pain and discomfort from debilitating symptoms. It has provided a new alternative health option that can be safer compared to other methods of pain management, such as prescription opioid medications.
According to some clinical studies, the higher the potency and frequency of use, the greater the risk of developing cognitive impairment. So if you are a patient who uses concentrates, try reducing the use of high-potency cannabis.
However, medical cannabis is intended to be part of an effective treatment plan, with many therapeutic elements to help relieve symptoms. Talk to your doctor about other natural ways you can help moderate symptoms. That includes exercise, dietary nutrition, hot or cold compresses, topical creams, and more.
How DocMJ Helps Patients
No matter where you are in terms of exploring medical cannabis for wellness, DocMJ can help. For new patients, our friendly staff and knowledgeable physicians can answer any questions you have about medical marijuana.
If you have one or more qualified health conditions in your state, schedule an appointment online with DocMJ. In many states, we are able to serve patients with a convenient telemedicine appointment. In Florida, we provide thirty (30) convenient clinic locations to assist patients in person, like DocMJ in Tampa.
Talk to an experienced medical marijuana doctor. Find out if you qualify to apply for a medical card. Get 100% money back for your fee if you are not approved.
With over 25 years of specialty training in Internal Medicine, as well as fellowship training in Functional and Sexual medicine, Dr. Maginso added Plant Medicine (Medical Marijuana) to her niche practice as of 2017. She is licensed in the State of Florida and attended the University of the East (UERM) in Quezon City, Philippines as well as the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, NJ.
She joined DocMJ in 2019 to align with a known group of compassionate physicians that empower their patients to be better versions of themselves. Her favorite hashtag is #powerpassionperformance, using the combination of optimized bioidentical hormones, medical marijuana, plasma therapies, and sexual wellness.
She is an author, speaker and community advocate for Medical Marijuana, Sexual Health, and the empowerment of mature women.