Cannabis is becoming increasingly popular because of its effects on sleep, productivity, and all-around wellness. It helps people manage medical issues such as childhood epilepsy, chronic pain and even the after effects of chemotherapy, as well as mental health issues like anxiety and depression. However, cannabis compounds do not work solo. They need to work with dopamine to produce these effects.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine acts as both neurotransmitter and a hormone. As a neurotransmitter, dopamine is a chemical messenger, communicating messages between nerve cells in your brain and the rest of your body. It plays a part in movement, memory, motivation, behavior, cognition, sleep, mood, learning, and even lactation.
As a hormone, dopamine is released in your bloodstream and plays a small role in fight-or-flight, your body’s natural response to a perceived stressful situation, such as needing to escape danger to save your life.
Dopamine is mostly known as a feel-good hormone, giving you a sense of pleasure. It is what also gives you the motivation to continue to do what gives you pleasure, therefore making it part of your reward system.
As humans, our brains are wired to seek out behaviors that release dopamine in our reward system. When you’re doing something pleasurable, your brain releases a large amount of dopamine. You feel good and you seek more of that feeling. However, because of this, dopamine is also responsible for many of our additions. Whether eating sugar, junk foods, or using substances, the release of dopamine is triggered, giving you that feeling of pleasure, and the desire to repeat that experience.
Having the right balance of dopamine leads to feelings of happiness, motivation, mental alertness and focus. On the other hand, having low dopamine can lead to feeling tired and unmotivated and can also lead to memory loss, sleep issues, low concentration, mood swings and decreased libido.
Those with higher levels of dopamine might feel euphoric, energized and have high libidos. However, having extremely high levels of dopamine can also have negative side effects such as insomnia, aggression and lack of impulse control.
Effects of Cannabis on Dopamine
Cannabis has two primary compounds that affect dopamine in the brain, and these are; cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Below we are going to walk through the effects of both How THC Affects Dopamine
THC is that psychoactive element of cannabis that is responsible for giving those who smoke it, a “high” effect. This is due to its effect on our dopamine neurons. To explain further, we are going to have to get into some science so buckle up, it’s time for your lesson.
It all starts in the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system exists within the human brain and helps to regulate our mood, memory and stress. The main signaling molecules in the endocannabinoid system are known as endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids bind to endocannabinoid receptors CB1 & CB2. One of the major molecules that bind to these receptors, is called an anandamide. Anandamide, is our body’s natural signal to release dopamine.
When THC is introduced, it imitates anandamide, binding to the CB1 receptors and releasing dopamine. While both essentially do the same thing, when THC releases dopamine the effects are well above normal, lasting much longer than the anandamide on its own. This is what leads to the sensation of euphoria or “being high”.
CB1 receptors are also found in the basal ganglia and cerebellum the regions of the brain that are involved in controlling movement. This is what can slow you down and effect your activity level and motor control. Some people also experience a change in perception, such as visual distortions or an altered sense of reality after using THC.
There are many reasons we might use THC. We might use to feel better, connect with others, or reduce thoughts of anxiety or depression. This is all great when used in moderation.
However, if dopamine levels stay elevated for extended periods, and when someone uses THC products frequently, the human body will temporarily shut down a couple of the natural receptors. As a result, THC can change our nervous system, and over time we actually end up feeling more anxious and depressed. It will reduce the body’s dopamine synthesis and eventually decrease the amount of pleasure you feel from activities that used make you happy.
This is when increased or implusive use of THC can come into play. Since our bodies are no longer producing its own dopamine, we seek it from outside sources.
It’s also important to note that the elevation and dopamine firing that comes with heavy THC use, can put you at risk for psychosis.
To counteract this, doctors may administer dopamine medication to increase dopamine levels in the body and help treat or manage conditions related to the lower dopamine levels. They also advise heavy THC users to quit because the body can eventually adjust dopamine levels over time given the right conditions.
What could also come into play at this stage, is THC’s cannabinoid counterpart, CBD.
How CBD Affects Dopamine
CBD is the second-highest compound found in cannabis plants after THC. However, unlike THC, CBD does not have intoxicating properties that lead to euphoric highs. In fact, CBD doesn’t have the same affect that THC has on our body’s natural endocannabinoids. Instead, CBD is thought to actually increases endocannabinoid levels by raising the natural levels of anandamide. So instead of acting as the anandamide, it increases anandamide, helping with the natural regulation of other chemicals in the body, including dopamine.
CBD also stimulates adenosine receptors to encourage the release of dopamine transmitters. Through its interaction with dopamine receptors, it helps to raise the dopamine levels and regulate natural activities such as cognition, motivation and reward seeking behaviors.
Also, unlike its THC counterpart, CBD doesn’t interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors. In turn, CBD interactions actually helps in reducing the extreme effects of THC usage.
In addition, by altering dopamine levels in the body, CBD offers a range of benefits including increased feelings of happiness and pleasure, while also having a positive influence on behavior. Though it has no psychoactive effects, it can also help people manage chronic pain, anxiety, and insomnia.
CBD is a non-addictive molecule, and it will also not prevent your brain from producing dopamine if you stop consuming CBD products.
Though both THC and CBD are cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, how they interact and affect dopamine are vastly different. In fact, the overall well being of a person can shift with use of either product.
While using THC can be fun, moderation is key. Overuse can have damaging effects on a person’s overall physical & mental wellbeing. However, its counterpart CBD can have a positive effect and could possibly aid in the negative effects of THC. Kind of a Jekyll and Hyde situation if you will. All in all, we hope your learned something from this article and have a host of THC & CBD products to help with your cannabis journey. We highly recommend tinctures as you will find some with a balanced CBD to THC ratio and some that are solo THC & CBD.
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*Disclaimer: The above information is in no way medical advice. We always recommend you speak with your doctor about any concerns you may have around cannabis use and its effects*