Does Marijuana REALLY relieve stress?

Hello everyone! I’m back (:

Well, this is now the end of my fourth week in Paris. There’s only one more week left, HOLY COW! Since I’ve been here, I think I have pretty much adjusted to the culture. I still smile when I see strangers, but I’ve just accepted the fact that they probably will not smile back.

However, there is one part of the culture I haven’t quite adjusted to yet… SMOKING! I heard before traveling here that smoking cigarettes is very common in Paris, and these rumors were not false. In Paris, you will literally see people smoking absolutely anywhere… at the train station, sitting at a restaurant, and I have even seen workers smoking while on duty. In America, smoking is much more moderated. There are designated areas for smoking and non-smoking. Here, smoking is the norm. I am pretty sure I have not seen one “non-smoking” sign since I have been here.

I expected that majority of people would smoke cigarettes, which is true. However, I was surprised by the vast amount of people I have seen smoking marijuana. I have seen multiple people on the train rolling up a joint, or even people walking down the street smoking it with no concerns whatsoever.

One day, a couple of my friends and I decided to head out for dinner. We were going to get Thai food at some restaurant we found on google (yep, still an avid google user).

As we were looking for the restaurant, the navigation led us down some weird side street. On  that street, we walked past a group of young girls sitting on the porch SMOKING MARIJUANA. Honestly, the girls looked no more than 13-14 years old. I was completely shocked. It was basically babies smoking weed.

The babies smoking on the porch. (Not actually, but this is how I perceived it.)

Okay, so this got me thinking. I knew marijuana had become increasingly prevalent in America just from my own experience. Marijuana references can be found all over social media, in music, television… it has really become a major part of pop culture. If you don’t want to take my word for it, The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that, “Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug (22.2 million people have used it in the past month).” They also state that marijuana use is widespread among adolescents and young adults, specifically 8th-12th graders. WHY ARE SO MANY CHILDREN SMOKING!!!

In my experience, any time I have asked someone why they smoke marijuana, they claim that it helps relieve stress. Even in popular music, artists sing/rap lyrics about getting high to relax. I’m sure you all are familiar with Drake, one of the most popular music icons of the decade (I loveeee Drake, so I’m bias. But he really is extremely popular). In his song “Fear”, which has over 6 million plays on youtube, he says, “I been getting high just to balance out the lows.” I personally have seen this one line quoted several times on twitter by tons of people. Also, New Frontier Data’s 2017 Cannabis Perceptions Survey reports that of users, 55% say they use it for relaxation purposes, and 40% say they use it to relieve stress.

This made me wonder, how true is this? And if it is really true, what part does our brain play in making marijuana relaxing?

It was already well known that there are areas in the brain called receptors that are specifically for cannabis (another common name for marijuana) to bind to and create an effect in the body. However, a study by Ramikie et al. (2014) found for the first time that there are cannabis receptors in the Central Amygdala. This was a HUGE deal because the amygdala is the structure in the brain that is involved in regulating anxiety and the stress response. Having cannabis receptors in that specific region could help explain why marijuana users say they take the drug mainly to relieve stress and anxiety.

These receptors in the brain weren’t created intentionally to bind marijuana, though. Our body has its own natural form of cannabis, called endo-cannabinoids, that it releases to bind to these receptors. The receptors are located in various regions of the brain, so when the endo-cannabinoids bind there can be a multitude of effects on pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, movement, coordination, and sensory and time perception. THC is the major chemical in marijuana, and according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, it has a very similar chemical structure to one of the body’s natural endo-cannabinoids, anandamide. This similarity in structure allows the THC to trick the cannabis receptors into thinking it is an endo-cannabinoid. The THC binds to the receptors in place of the endo-cannabinoids,  and thus, marijuana can also have similar effects on the body.

Anandamide vs THC

This image shows how THC can bind to the cannabis receptors in place of the endo-cannabinoids, thus regulating many body functions.

Similar to humans, mice also have these cannabis receptors and natural endo-cannabinoids in their brains. Ramikie et al. (2014) wanted to understand the role of endo-cannabinoids, and their effect on the central amygdala. To do this experiment, they used a mouse model and fluorescently labelled the cannabis receptors so that they could be easily visualized using special microscopy techniques. They specifically observed the amygdala, and found that there actually were a significant number of cannabis receptors present in this area. They also found that the amygdala creates and releases its own natural endo-cannibinoids.

So what exactly does all of this mean? By finding cannabis receptors in the amygdala, and knowing that THC can bind to these receptors, researchers have potentially identified exactly how marijuana regulates stress and anxiety. However, there are down sides to this. When a person smokes marijuana, THC overwhelms the cannabis receptors by quickly attaching to them in place of the endo-cannabinoids. This interferes with the ability of the natural cannabinoids to do their job of regulating bodily functions, which can throw the entire system off balance (Scholastic 2011). So yes, while marijuana’s THC can reduce anxiety, chronic use of the drug down-regulates the receptors, which will actually increase anxiety. Down regulation occurs because over-activation of the receptors causes them to become less sensitive to the cannabis or endo-cannabinoids binding to them, which causes the receptors to need more cannabis in order to regulate natural bodily functions. This can lead to a habitual cycle of increasing marijuana use that, in some cases, leads to addiction.

What is great about this article is that the researchers used a relatively common imaging technique to understand a popular phenomenon. By finding the cannabis receptors within the amygdala, this study introduced ground breaking research that demonstrated how exactly marijuana can potentially regulate stress and anxiety, when used in moderation.  However, this study was limited because it only set out to locate the receptors and see their activity. There should have been a behavioral aspect to the study to determine how activation of the cannabinoid receptors changes behavior. The amygdala has a multitude of functions, and by including a behavioral aspect to the study, we would have been able to see exactly which functions the endo-cannabinoids play a part in.  Going forward, it would be interesting to test the effects of THC on these receptors in mice, and actually observe the effects of different amounts during a stressful situation.

So to answer my earlier question– yes, I guess it is true that marijuana really does relieve stress (when used in moderation). Neuroscience really does have the answer for everything!

Thanks for reading!

-Janet

 

References:

Ramikie T, Nyilas R, Bluett R, Gamble-George J, Hartley N, Mackie K, Watana M, Katona I, Patel S (2014) Multiple Mechanistically Distinct Modes of Endocannabinoid Mobilization at Central Amygdala Glutamatergic Synapses. Neuron 81(5): 1111-1125.

“The Science of the Endocannabinoid System: How THC Affects the Brain and the Body” (2011) Scholastic.

Map from Google Maps.

Children Smoking: https://www.dhushara.com/book/twelve/tw2.htm

National Institute on Drug Abuse: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/what-scope-marijuana-use-in-united-states

Drake youtube reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcQzATCJpBA

New Frontier Data’s 2017 Cannabis Perceptions Survey: https://newfrontierdata.com/marijuana-insights/people-use-cannabis/

THC & anandamide: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/how-does-marijuana-produce-its-effects

THC & Cannabis receptor: http://headsup.scholastic.com/students/endocannabinoid

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