Ever wonder what actually happens inside your brain when you get high?
In short, a whole fucking lot. WAYYY more than I realized when I decided to research this topic. The bottom line is that so many things are at play here; so many systems are affected, and there are tons of variables. I’m realizing that I cannot give the clear and uncomplicated explanation I had hoped for how cannabis affects the brain.
But I’ll share what I’ve learned:
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects pleasure and reward. It is released when you expect a pleasurable experience and helps you remember the experience so you to seek it out again. It drives us to seek out what feels good. Plus, a bunch of other things.
The neurotransmitter GABA is an inhibitor, and maintains a refractory (cool down) period for the neuron, moderating the amount of dopamine it releases. In this way GABA has a huge affect on mood.
When you consume cannabis, THC blocks GABA, which overrides that refractory period, so your neurons pump out dopamine like crazy. The intense activity excites nearby neurons and triggers them to fire as well.
But there’s SO MUCH more to the story. We’ve got CB1 receptors all over the brain and body, and these receptors affect several different neurotransmitters in different ways, depending on the cannabinoids and terpenes involved, and on each individual’s brain. Plus Phytocannabinoids can trigger other receptors than those within the Endocannabinoid System, and directly affect their neurotransmitters.
Anandamide makes us feel great, but its a very fragile molecule, and it quickly broken down by digestive enzymes. THC makes us feel high in the same way as anandamide but its stronger and lasts much longer. And CBD affects the reputable of anandamide, so more of it can circulate in the brain. In fact, studies found a link between a higher happiness baseline and a genetic mutation that leads to low concentrations of FAAH, the enzyme that breaks down anandamide. So people with more anandamide are happier.
This makes us feel awesome, and affects all the areas of the brain and body with receptors for THC, our Endocannabinoid system.
Isn’t that cool?
I love learning about the brain. How cannabis affects it, what happens when you meditate, why I want to eat so much sugar. It’s so exciting and empowering to find out why.
What about when you get too high? Like, way too high. Your heart is racing, your mouth is like a desert, you feel like you can’t breathe or move from where you are, you are panicking. Well, as I said THC inhibits GABA. And too little GABA can cause anxiety, and restlessness.
Low levels of THC inhibit Glutamate-releasing neurons, which decreases anxiety, but at higher doses It inhibits GABA-releasing neurons, which causes an increase of Glutamate, which in turn causes anxiety.
THC affects 3 different parts of the brain with respect to anxiety. The Amygdala, which is an old part of the brain, hippocampus, which gives us contextual information about anxiety signals, and the prefrontal cortex, which is our higher brain, and governs executive function. A study was performed in mice that gave isolated does of THC to these areas of the brain, and concluded that: the amygdala expresses anxiety at any dose of THC, but the hippocampus and PFC experienced improvement of anxiety at low doses. At higher doses all regions expressed increased anxiety responses. So, everyone will experience anxiety at high doses of THC. How much of this response you experience depends on how many receptors you have in these areas of the brain. Lots of CB1 receptors in the amygdala = a stronger anxiety response that will be harder to overcome with other parts of the brain.
I’ve just read about how CBD does not affect the psychoactivity of THC, which is news to me. But I did also see that it can dampen THC’s tendency to make us anxious and CBD definitely helps reduce memory loss from THC. CBD changes the shape of the CB1 receptor, making it harder for THC to bind to it, but still doesn’t seem to conclusively affect the high. I can say from experience that when I’ve had too much THC, CBD brings everything back into clarity for me in seconds. It sharpens my mind and helps me feel back in control. I wouldn’t describe the feeling as less high, I still feel euphoric and good, but my mind is clear and focused.
I’m continuing my research into brain science with this book: The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.
I'd love to hear your thoughts, leave a comment below!
I am Jessica DaCosta, I'm a proud cannabis enthusiast, advocate, and mom of two.