Whether you’re brand spanking new to using cannabis for medical or recreational purposes, or you’re old hat, at one point or other, everyone runs the risk of developing a tolerance to cannabis.
What is cannabis tolerance?
Despite what popular culture might suggest about cannabis use, there is evidence that the plant has been used for centuries as a medical aid, prescribed to treat conditions ranging from pain to depression. Like many other substances before and after it, with regular use patients run the risk of developing a tolerance, a condition that results in a patient needing to increase their dosage at regular intervals in order to continue experiencing the desired effects.
Even more frustrating for pot proponents, it’s been shown that humans can develop a tolerance to the plant relatively quickly, which means it won’t take long for you to become desensitized to the effects of a measured dose over a short period of time.
How does cannabis tolerance happen?
We’ll defer to science to answer why chronic use leads to cannabis tolerance, specifically at a 2016 study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging that sought to answer this exact question once and for all.
We know that pot plants are psychoactive because of the levels of the cannabinoid THC. This cannabinoid mimics those that are naturally produced by the body, and directly engages with specific cell receptors, or cannabinoid receptors within the endocannabinoid system. In the case of THC, they favor the CB1 receptors, which happen to be the most abundant of their kind. CB1 receptors are responsible for regulating homeostasis, and when stimulated can affect:
The regular and continual introduction of these “foreign” cannabinoids causes a phenom known downregulation, or a decrease in the amount of CB1 receptors that are expressed in a cell. Cells will either upregulate or downregulate various receptors depending on the internal environment of the body.
In layman’s terms, chronic use tricks the body into thinking it doesn’t have to create its own cannabinoids (like anandamide, the “bliss” molecule) so it stops production. Now you have a natural decrease and you’ll need to keep adding more of the “fake” stuff to fill the void.
Can you overdose on cannabis?
This is a logical question that should be considered by any patient taking any kind of medication, prescription, over-the-counter, herbal, or otherwise. After all, they are fond of saying, “too much of a good thing.”
Unlike opiates, it’s next to impossible to overdose on marijuana, and THC – the most prevalent cannabinoid – won’t become toxic until it reaches incredibly high levels in the body; this feat is, in general, extremely difficult to accomplish unless you’re willing to sit down and eat many pounds of the stuff in a few minutes.
Can I avoid cannabis tolerance?
The news is not all doom and gloom, however – there is a silver lining! The same study confirmed that tolerance to cannabis can be reversed. Researchers concluded that downregulation will begin to turn around after abstinence from the herb, and may continue to decrease over time, returning to almost normal after just four weeks. Even better, cannabis tolerance was shown to begin to reverse within two days of putting down the pot.
What does this mean for current and potential patients? Though regular use will likely lead to some level of tolerance, it’s possible to avoid any long-term effects by practicing responsible marijuana use and taking regular tolerance breaks – a short period of abstinence, at least two days – in order for the remedy to maintain its efficacy.
Tips & tricks to manage cannabis tolerance
Tolerance breaks may not be the answer for everyone, especially patients who rely on cannabis as an essential part of their therapeutic regime (think cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, Parkinson’s patients, someone suffering from chronic and debilitating pain, or even persistent mood disorders like PTSD or depression). In these cases, there are a few tactics you can employ to help decrease your risk of developing a tolerance too quickly.
Microdose: the practice of microdosing is nothing new, though it may have only just begun to be applied to marijuana use. Microdisng involves using small, measured amounts of cannabis at regular intervals, a practice which is said to take advantage of the medical benefits without flooding the system. It’s not as good as abstaining, but it offers a suitable compromise.
Try CBD instead: CBD, or cannabidiol, is highly regarded as an all-natural alternative to prescription medications because of its numerous clinical applications, but more importantly, it presents a distinct lack of psychoactive properties. You still get pain relief, but there’s no euphoria. Cycling between strains high in one cannabinoid then the other will give your body a chance to flush the THC before introducing it to the system again.
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