Many media reports over the past few decades explain that THC induces a “flood of dopamine” that causes the pleasurable “high” cherished by recreational cannabis consumers. For more than four decades addiction scientists have embraced the unifying theory — the dopamine theory of addiction — that nearly all addictive substances and activities flood the limbic brain with dopamine.
But in fact, numerous human studies suggest that at best, consuming cannabis produces only a modest amount of dopamine, certainly nowhere near the five to ten times amount that’s often quoted. (Notably, the media’s description of dopamine as the brain’s ultimate “pleasure molecule” is not exactly accurate, either.)
Marijuana is an amazing plant because its chemical compounds tap into a complex network of neurotransmitters that form our ECN system.
We probably wouldn’t know about the ECN system if it wasn’t for weed! By studying how marijuana works, scientists uncovered natural pathways inside our brains that could reveal the keys to healing mental and physical ailments.
When it comes to understanding the ECN system and why weed makes you happy, the most important ECN chemical to understand is anandamide. Our body creates its own bliss molecule. It means the human brain possesses Anandamide and other chemicals that control euphoria and cheer.
Anandamide is a neurotransmitter that’s believed to be the true cause of the euphoria related to cannabis. Anandamide, which is one of the body’s natural endocannabinoids, is known to produce joy and happiness. It also plays a role in memory, motivation, pain, appetite and fertility. It’s the binding of anandamide with the CB1 receptor that produces the “feel good” effect that is similar to that associated with cannabis usage.
Anandamide was the first organic ECN neurotransmitter discovered by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam in the year 1990. He coincidentally also was the first researcher who first isolated THC in 1964. Raphael chooses the word Anandamide from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “joy.”
Anandamide is an endocannabinoid where“endo” means “within.” On the other hand, cannabis is a phytocannabinoid. “Phyto” means “plant.” However, anandamide molecules play a crucial role in memory, motivation, pain, sexual drive, appetite, and emotions.
What does Anandamide do?
Anandamide molecules affect reactions to anxiety, happiness, and contentment. In an experiment where mice were not able to use anandamide chemicals their bodies create, they had a struggle getting over a stimulus.
However, mice in the control group that was able to use their naturally produced anandamide relaxed. In fact, offering THC to the experimental group offered the same effect, showing a powerful connection to stress-relief and anandamide. This is the main reason some marijuana strains help you get rid of anxiety.
A 2013 study confirmed Dr.Mechoulam earlier finding:
THC interacted with emotional content, as activity in this network was reduced for negative content, while activity for positive content was increased. These results indicate that THC administration reduces the negative bias in emotional processing. This adds human evidence to support the hypothesis that the endocannabinoid system is involved in modulation of emotional processing. Our findings also suggest a possible role for the endocannabinoid system in abnormal emotional processing, and may thus be relevant for psychiatric disorders such as major depression.
One study found that marijuana can also help people suffering from depression have minimal negative results in their thought processes.
Another study stated that those people who ingest marijuana occasionally or even every day have minimal levels of depressive signs in comparison to those who have never tried it.
Another study claimed that prisoners in Switzerland that had access to marijuana were less stressed, calmer, and less prone to violence.
It turns out anandamide is responsible for much more than happiness. Anandamide also plays important roles in memory, motivation, movement, pain, appetite, fertility, even potentially inhibiting cancer cell proliferation. But it’s because of its role in neurogenesis — the formation of new nerve cells — that anandamide is also an anti-anxiety and antidepressant agent. Unfortunately, like other neurotransmitters, anandamide quickly breaks down in the body, so it doesn’t create a perpetual state of bliss.
Running, Yoga and Chocolate also Affect Anandamide
It means you will get the same high from these activities too. Yes, chocolate has theobromine – the molecule that causes the brain to generate more anandamide. Theobromine stimulates anandamide production in the body. Moreover, chocolate also possesses molecules that lower the breakdown of anandamide.
However, while cannabis seems to have a calming, pleasant effect on most consumers, one out of five people have the opposite reaction. A naturally occurring enzyme called FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) deactivates anandamide, and some individuals are genetically predisposed to producing less FAAH. As such, in these people anandamide doesn’t break down the same way, so they are naturally more relaxed. When they consume cannabis, they experience a paradox effect, and in fact actually become anxious. Predictably, they’re also less likely to enjoy (or consume) cannabis.
Further, we know THC has a biphasic effect, meaning low and high doses can elicit opposite reactions in people. So while consuming just the right amount of THC can make you feel good, too much of it can be a bad thing, inducing anxiety and discomfort.
Nonetheless, for the majority of people, as long as they don’t consume too much, cannabis produces that sense of calm and peace they so appreciate.