You’ve probably heard a common myth about the chemical that has been blamed (or credited) for “high” cannabis: dopamine. Many media reports over the last few decades have explained that THC induces a “dopamine flood” that causes the “high” pleasure enjoyed by recreation cannabis users. Where did this idea come from in the media? For more than four decades, addiction specialists have accepted the unifying principle of dopamine addiction-that almost all addictive drugs and behaviours flood the limbic brain with dopamine.
Here’s how the National Institute for Substance Abuse (NIDA) describes it (emphasis mine): THC, working via cannabinoid receptors, also stimulates the brain reward system, which includes regions that control the reaction to suitable, pleasurable activities such as sex and eating. Like most other drugs of violence, THC induces neurons in the reward system to release signalling chemical dopamine at levels higher than those usually seen in response to natural stimuli. This dopamine influx leads to the pleasurable “hot” that recreational drug consumers will see.
Dopamine from Cannabis Debunked
NIDA is not intentionally misleading. Through cannabinoid receptors, THC is likely to activate the brain reward system, but it is unlikely to do so by “flooding the brain with dopamine.” How do we know this? In contrast to early animal model studies that support NIDA’s view The view that the (shrink) majority of addiction scientists share today the evidence is not supported by human studies.
Numerous social studies suggest that, at best, cannabis use produces only a modest amount of dopamine, certainly not close to the five to ten times the amount that is often cited. (In particular, the media’s description of dopamine as the ultimate “pleasure molecule” of the brain is not accurate either.) However, while robust evidence suggests that stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines trigger a dopamine flood, the same can not be said about cannabis.
However, while robust evidence indicates that stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines trigger a dopamine flood, the same can not be said about marijuana.
Please Meet Man’s Natural Anandamide “Bliss Molecule”
In the early 1990s, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, a man who first recognized (and synthesized) THC, discovered a neurotransmitter called anandamide. It seemed to create a heightened sense of joy and satisfaction; anandamide was dubbed the “bliss molecule.” Anandamide is derived from the word “Ananda” that is from Sanskrit, which means “joy” or “bliss.” It turns out that anandamide is responsible for much more than satisfaction. Anandamide also plays a crucial role in memory, motivation, movement, pain, appetite, fertility, and likely inhibiting the spread of cancer cells. Because of its role in neurogenesis, anandamide is also an anti-anxiety and antidepressant agent. Neurogenesis is the development of new nerve cells. Unfortunately, like many neurotransmitters, anandamide easily breaks down in the body so that it does not create a permanent state of bliss. Bummer, man!
Since anandamide is an endocannabinoid (‘endo’ means ‘inside’ as in the body), it has a phytocannabinoid twin (‘Phyto’ means ‘of the plant’). AnSo anandamide is naturally occurring in the body, while THC is naturally present in cannabis. Both cannabinoids show a strong affinity for binding to the CB1 and CB2 receptors of the endocannabinoid system. Nevertheless, it is binding to CB1, which causes euphoric effects.
Considering that THC and anandamide share similar properties, cannabis use will yield the same results. In a matter of seconds, when you ingest cannabis by smoking or steaming, THC enters your brain and goes to work on your brain’s neurons. Unlike a key and lock, the neurotransmitter binds to or fits into the right receptor and signals something to the body. In this case, it produces the feeling of “bliss.” Chocolate, yoga, and running also influence anandamide, so that you can get a similar high — though less powerful — from these activities as well (think “runner’s high”).
However, though cannabis tends to have a soothing, friendly effect on most users, one in five people has the opposite reaction. Anandamide is deactivated by a naturally occurring enzyme called FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase), and specific individuals are genetically predisposed to developing less FAAH. As such, anandamide does not break down the same way in these men, so they are more relaxed. When they ingest cannabis, they experience a paradoxical effect and become nervous. They are much less likely to tolerate (or consume) cannabis.
Furthermore, we know that THC has a biphasic effect, which means that low and high doses will cause opposite reactions in humans. And while eating just the right amount of THC can make you feel okay, too much of it can be a bad thing, causing anxiety and discomfort.
However, for most people, as long as they don’t smoke too much, cannabis provides a sense of relaxation and peace that they love very much.
When Terry Necco explained why cannabis makes people feel good, author of the book (now sadly out of print), “Marijuana and Sex: A Classic Mix,” explains it best: “Just as our bodies contain pleasure systems that reward us for sex, our brains contain neurocellular circuitry that can only be stimulated by substances with the molecular structure of THC. THC makes marijuana high a unique set of emotions, and there are only two types of materials that activate THC’s neuroreceptor. Our brain is one source: it produces a neurochemical called anandamide, very similar to THC. The only other source of this; the bliss-producing drug is the cannabis plant.