Cannabis and dopamine: What's the connection?

You may be wondering, what causes you to feel ‘high’ when consuming cannabis? 

Cannabis has hundreds of chemical compounds, called cannabinoids [*]. One of these compounds, which is responsible for the plant’s intoxicating effects, is tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC. But it’s not the THC itself that contributes to this ‘high’ feeling, but rather the way it helps to release dopamine in the brain [*].

What is dopamine?

According to an article by Trevor Haynes published in Harvard University’s online publication, “dopamine is a chemical produced by our brains that plays a starring role in motivating behavior” [*].

Haynes explains that evolutionarily, dopamine influenced our survival system by rewarding us for beneficial behaviours and motivating us to repeat them [*]. A study in CBC News further discusses how “through most of human history, food has been scarce. Our brains would reward us with a dopamine rush when we ate high-calorie food. This reward system uses [the neurotransmitter] anandamide to release dopamine in small amounts” [*].

In day-to-day life, dopamine is released when we take a bite of food, when we have sex, when we interact socially, and after we exercise [*]. Our brains have dopamine-producing neurons controlled by two neurotransmitters: gamma-aminobutyric acid (also known as GABA) and glutamate [*]. Both of these neurotransmitters help to regulate the release and production of dopamine in our brains, helping it maintain healthy amounts [*]. 

How does THC impact dopamine levels?

Ingesting THC causes the brain to release more dopamine, tricking our ancient survival system into creating feel-good sensations [*].

When you consume cannabis, THC replaces a chemical in the brain called anandamide, which normally would regulate the production of dopamine and release small amounts into the system [*]. THC causes the brain to release much more dopamine than anandamide would allow, and inhibits the production of one of the dopamine-producing neurotransmitters, GABA [*]. If GABA is inhibited, then there are less signals being sent to neurons to stop the production of dopamine [*]. 

While dopamine can increase pleasurable sensations, it’s important to remember that it’s most beneficial in regulated doses [*]. If excessive dopamine levels continue for a long period of time, dopamine receptors in the brain may temporarily be impeded. This can become cyclical for heavy cannabis users, since they may have to consume more and more cannabis to get the same effects, while also potentially not getting as much pleasure from natural stimuli when sober [*]. 

Once you get your medical cannabis prescription, it's a great idea to start low and go slow, educate yourself on the potential health benefits and risks [*], and consult with your healthcare provider if you feel any adverse effects.

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