Before we start, we should note that a whole lot more research needs to be done in this area. Cannabis has been used as medicine for millennia. But as aspirins and opioids rose in popularity, weed use declined, and the drug was officially criminalized in 1937. But we’re not here to debate the pros and cons of legalization. Instead, we’re interested in breaking down exactly what happens in your brain and body when you’re high.
A specific compound in the plant interacts with a specific receptor in the brain, and there are psychoactive effects as a result – that is, making you feel high. What has baffled the scientific community, though, is precisely how this interaction works. Cannabis contains at least 60 types of cannabinoids, chemical compounds that act on receptors throughout our brain.
Picture from grasslogic.com
How the plant works?
Many readers may already be familiar with the compound in marijuana that is responsible for its many side effects. It’s called THC, or delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol. THC is the most psychoactive compound, so when you smoke cannabis, THC gives you the high feeling. The more THC you have, the more powerful the high.
Being under its influence is what’s responsible for the euphoria, relaxation, appetite stimulation, and everything else associated with marijuana.
What fewer may know is what THC does when it enters the body. The compound interacts with a brain receptor called CB1. Like other receptors, CB1 doesn’t have only one function. It’s responsible for a broad range of things, some of which are pain relief, appetite suppression, and mood regulation. In other words, CB1 isn’t there just to accept THC; its role in your everyday life, even without marijuana, is crucial.
THC also increases dopamine levels, creating that sense of euphoria.
CBD, on the other hand, acts as an antagonist to THC. Basically, it does the opposite. CBD does not have psychoactive effects, but it does have beneficial effects. It reduces pain and muscle spasticity, and can make you more relaxed. This is the compound of greatest interest for medical marijuana.
What it does to your brain
First, a quick neuroscience lesson: Your brain is made up of neurons and neural circuits. Neurons are long, dangly cells that like to keep their distance from each other. To bridge the gap (or synapse), chemicals called neurotransmitters deliver messages by traveling from one neuron to another and attaching onto molecules called receptors. And guess what? There’s a special kind of neurotransmitter called an endocannabinoid. Yep, your body makes its own version of weed (sort of).
“When we experience pain, inflammation, or stress—or have issues related to fear or mood—our body releases endocannabinoids, which go to our endocannabinoid system and help get rid of those unwanted sensations.
Since the cannabinoids in cannabis look and act the same as the kind your body makes, they’re able to slip by and latch onto the cannabinoid receptors in your brain. There are two types (that researchers know of): CB1, which are mostly located in areas of the brain that are associated with learning, memory, reward, anxiety, pain, and movement control, and CB2, which is associated with the immune system. The cannabinoids throw your usual system out of whack, boosting certain signals and interfering with others. Which is why marijuana’s effects can range from a feeling of relaxation and pain relief to clumsiness, anxiety (or lack thereof), and even the munchies.
Munchies…. why, oh why?
There’s a purely scientific reason why you can suddenly ingest 5,000 calories and still wonder if that Chinese place will deliver this late. It’s the CB1 receptors in your hypothalamus, the region of the brain that regulates appetite.
Usually, your body makes its own cannabinoids, which bind to your CB1 receptors to tell your brain that you need food. When you supply your body with THC, you artificially boost the “I’m hungry” signal and consequently end up thinking the entire Taco Bell menu sounds AMAZING. This side effect is good not only for Taco Bell’s bottom line, but also for cancer patients who have lost all desire to eat.
Just how quickly do you feel those results?
Well, it all depends on whether you smoke, vape, or consume edibles.
When you smoke, cannabis is in the bloodstream very quickly . When you eat it, it can take up to 20 or 30 minutes before you can feel the effect.
When you smoke a joint, the THC goes into your lungs, then into your heart which pumps it into your bloodstream which then takes it directly to your brain. When you smoke marijuana, it only takes a few minutes for the THC to get to your brain, whereas if you eat it, it would take a little longer because it has to pass through your digestive system first.
Once it’s in your brain, the THC activates what are called ‘receptors,’ and gives you the feeling of being high. In short, marijuana changes the physical and chemical balance in your brain and this is what people refer to as a ‘high’.”
You’ve probably heard that sativa produces feelings of euphoria and enhances energy while indica is good for pain management and sleep (these experiences are echoed on just about every weed forum on the internet). Weed experiences are highly individual. What produces paranoia in one subject might be an OK blaze for another. Likewise, while science can explain certain feelings like muscle relaxation and hunger, the exact formula needed to replicate an identical reaction in everyone—well, that’s a lot trickier.
The effects will depend on the amount taken, as well as how potent the preparation is. Cannabis effects will also vary by individual. Not all people may find it an enjoyable or relaxing experience; for those who have anxiety or are prone to panic attacks, marijuana could exacerbate their symptoms rather than bring on a sense of calm.