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Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
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Millions of people use cannabis as medicine for mental and emotional health. Yet scientific studies are often at odds with one another. Research suggests that cannabis can positively affect your emotions, primarily through its effects on brain and nervous system functions. Yet, other investigations draw conflicting conclusions on whether cannabis use has positive or negative mental health outcomes in the long run.
The key to discovering how cannabis affects your emotions may depend on your physiology, frequency of use over time, and dosage. The type of cannabis (e.g., CBD-rich or THC-rich) you use may also have an effect. Let’s explore.
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Cannabis and the Brain
How does weed affect you emotionally? To answer that question, it’s essential to understand how marijuana’s primary psychoactive compound affects your brain activity. Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, has a chemical structure similar to your brain’s natural neurotransmitter, anandamide.
Known as the “bliss molecule,” anandamide is associated with mood elevation and increased energy. This structural similarity is one key reason that THC also enhances euphoric feelings. But how does this process work exactly?
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The Human Endocannabinoid System
THC interacts with your body’s intricate communication network, the endocannabinoid system, or ECS. Chemical signals, known as neurotransmitters, and receptors intercommunicate within your ECS to manage critical processes like learning, memory, emotional processing, sleep, hormones, and temperature.
The ECS consists of several chemical receptors, but the two most consequential are CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors exist primarily in the brain and nervous system, while CB2 receptors are located in the immune and peripheral nervous systems. When you ingest cannabis or cannabis-derived substances, cannabinoids interact with your body’s CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors to elicit various effects.
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THC and the Brain
THC has an exceptionally high affinity for CB1 receptors, playing a critical role in your nervous system’s functioning. Depending on the person and usage level, this affinity can have positive and adverse cognitive outcomes.
For example, THC affects the hippocampus, the brain area responsible for memory formation, and chronic cannabis use is linked to decreased short-term memory. On the other hand, THC triggers cannabinoid receptors to activate your brain’s reward system. This, in turn, releases dopamine, which can make you feel more blissful, motivated, and creative.
Cannabis’ complex ECS influence also extends to your amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-sized brain region best known for driving your “fight or flight response,” affecting emotions such as fear, pleasure, and anger. An overactive amygdala can lead to hypervigilance or a state of chronic stress, while a regulated one can promote feelings of calm and relaxation.
THC’s anti-anxiety properties may come from its effects on the amygdala. For example, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2008 found that THC reduces the amygdala’s reaction to social threats, thus dampening unhealthy, fear-based reactions. In short, THC’s amygdala action can help calm the nervous system, so you don’t overreact to stressful situations.
How Marijuana Affects Emotions
Since THC is chemically similar to the “bliss molecule,” anandamide, it’s easy to understand why ingesting cannabis can make you feel so good. Consuming marijuana directly affects the same reward centers as anandamide, increasing dopamine levels and boosting motivation and pleasure.
Cannabis’s uplifting properties are precisely why some people managing anxiety and depression seek the plant for therapeutic benefits. Similarly, people managing chronic pain often turn to cannabis, finding that the compound improves overall mood and quality of life along with their pain perception.
Others with less persistent conditions turn to cannabis to unwind from a long day, claiming that the compound reduces stress and helps them sleep more soundly. Surveys indicate that people believe marijuana helps them feel happier, relaxed, in tune with their emotions and less stressed.
Weed’s impact on the endocannabinoid system has triggered significant research into how cannabis can treat various anxiety disorders. As a result, the scientific community now recognizes that cannabis-derived products can potentially support new and novel treatments for mental health conditions. At the same time, researchers don’t claim that cannabis is an emotional panacea, and its emotional benefits may not apply equally or persist after long-term marijuana use.
Over the past several years, studies to better understand how cannabis influences emotions indicate that there are both negative and positive mental health outcomes associated with cannabis use. There is no doubt that THC causes euphoria and feelings of relaxation. But these experiences may not last and are not universal. In contrast to feelings of bliss, some people report intense fear, anxiety, and even panic.
Potential Emotional Benefits and Risks
The breadth of research over several decades points to a spectrum of mental health outcomes depending on the person, dosage, and frequency of marijuana use over time. It’s up to every individual to review these studies, talk to their doctors, and listen to their bodies when determining how to use cannabis for emotional support.
Benefits: What the Research Says
Here’s a look at a handful of studies on marijuana’s positive emotional benefits:
- Anti-anxiety and mood-boosting: In small doses, cannabinoids like CBD and THC act as anxiolytics and mood boosters; these factors are among the top reported reasons people use cannabis.
- Chronic pain relief: Adults with chronic pain conditions treated with cannabis experienced clinically significant reductions in pain, leading to an improved quality of life.
- Reduced opioid dependence: Cannabis’ pain-relieving properties can help people reduce dependence on opioids. States with legalized medical marijuana programs see fewer opioid prescriptions and opioid-related deaths.
- Improved cognitive performance: Studies show that medical marijuana patients who use cannabis to treat various mental illnesses, including anxiety, had improved cognitive performance and reduced clinical symptoms.
- Reduced stress: A study conducted by a research team out of Washington State University found that people using high CBD strains significantly reduced stress, anxiety, and depression more than those who smoked only high THC strains. This is likely due to CBD’s ability to mitigate many of THC’s unwanted side effects, such as paranoia.
- Increased empathy: Recent cannabis exposure may increase prosocial behaviors, empathy, benevolence, and fairness.
- Improved PTSD symptoms: A placebo-controlled, double-blind study published in PLOS ONE showed cannabis strains with varying THC and CBD concentrations were well tolerated and significantly improved PTSD symptoms.
Risks: What the Research Says
Research on cannabis’ benefits shows that long-term marijuana use seems to counteract short-term gains. This may be because overuse can flood the brain’s receptors, which increases tolerance to the effects, and overuse can even decrease the total CB1 receptor count. So, many “risks” are associated with long-term use of the drug:
For example, a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that smoking cannabis can significantly reduce short-term depression, anxiety, and stress but may contribute to worse feelings of depression over time.
Other studies that had similar findings include:
- Research conducted at Colorado State University found that cannabis use may reduce a person’s ability to empathize, based on study participants’ reactions to faces displaying a range of emotions. The study concluded that cannabis users demonstrated a reduced ability to identify feelings and empathize on a deeper emotional level.
- A study on adolescents found that chronic marijuana use can overload cannabinoid receptors in the amygdala. Overstimulation in this area can increase hypervigilance, putting young adults at greater risk of developing mood disorders later in life.
- Using PET brain imaging, Imperial London researchers found that long-term cannabis users produce less dopamine than non-users of the same age and sex. These findings could indicate why some associate cannabis with a lack of motivation.
Long-term use of cannabis may also lead to withdrawal. Chronic cannabis users, particularly women, who take tolerance breaks can experience cannabis withdrawal syndrome, defined in part by mood changes like unexplained anger and anxiety. However, it’s important to note the condition typically reverses itself in two days to four weeks following abstinence.
Interestingly, a longitudinal study of nearly 35,000 adult cannabis users did not find the same negative mental health effects over time. Researchers interviewed adults aged 18 years and older three years apart. They found that while cannabis was significantly linked to substance use disorders, it was not linked to mood or anxiety disorders.
The Bottom Line
Cannabis use affects your emotions in myriad complex ways by directly impacting your brain’s emotion centers. Moderate doses in the short term can diminish your stress responses by interacting with the brain’s amygdala. It can also increase dopamine levels, giving you bursts of happiness and motivation while reducing anxiety symptoms. Marijuana use offers many short-term positive emotional outcomes, verified by numerous scientific studies.
At the same time, higher doses can also lead to adverse effects, especially with chronic or prolonged use. These negative outcomes relate to impaired short-term memory, diminished motivation, an overactive amygdala, and a shrinking of the brain’s emotional centers, potentially dampening your ability to feel emotions to their fullest.
Your unique physiology means you’ll be impacted by cannabis differently from those around you. What may work for one person can be different for you. Learning which dosage and frequency work best for you is essential to utilizing cannabis for positive emotional outcomes.
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