What is cannabis tolerance?
Almost every cannabis consumer has experienced this situation: you start off with a small hit of cannabis, and a week later you realize that you need to consume more of it to feel the effects.
Humans develop tolerance to cannabis quite quickly, meaning that consumers become desensitized to the overall effects of the herb over a short period of time. Interestingly, certain areas of the body develop tolerance more rapidly than others. The colon, for example. One 2009 rodent study found that some functions in the gastrointestinal tract seem to be particularly resistant to tolerance. In this case, cannabis seemed to slow down the passage of food from the stomach to the small intestine, regardless of other signs of tolerance.
A study published early last year  in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.explains why cannabis tolerance happens.
The cannabis plant has psychoactive potential because of special chemicals it creates, called phytocannabinoids. These organic chemicals directly engage with special cell receptors in the body, called cannabinoid receptors. In the brain, the most abundant cannabinoid receptor is the CB1 receptor. The primary psychoactive in the herb, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), engages this receptor. While the exact ways THC affects the brain are unknown, it is known that the cannabinoid interacts with the brain in areas that control the following and more:
Earlier research has found that chronic THC treatment decreases the amount of CB1 receptors expressed in a cell. In the science world, this is called downregulation. Cells will either upregulate or downregulate various receptors depending on the internal environment of the body. In the case of THC, the downregulation of CB1 receptors leads to tolerance.
Cannabis tolerance doesn’t stick
The 2016 study confirmed that research. Using positron emission tomography (PET scan) and a special injection of a radioactive material, the researchers were able to get a visual sense of the density of the CB1 receptors in the brain.
The study compared 11 subjects diagnosed with cannabis dependence to 19 volunteers. The images showed that chronic cannabis consumers did, indeed, show lower receptor density. This is an important signifier of tolerance. They then performed these scans again, testing participants during a period of abstinence.
Amazingly, cannabis tolerance begins to reverse within two days after abstaining from the herb. At the 28-day mark, tolerance continued to improve. This is valuable information for medical cannabis patients, as this means dosage will change should they stop and start their treatment again.
Though cannabinoid receptors start to spring back just a couple of days after abstaining, the density of CB1 receptors in cannabis consuming participants was still lower than the healthy controls at the four-week mark. Though, should participants continue to abstain, things are predicted to catch up to “normal”.
Many cannabis regulars take tolerance breaks to maintain efficacy with the herb. A tolerance break is a short period of abstinence from the herb. As this study suggests, a mere two days of abstinence seems to be enough to kickstart the upregulation process. Medical cannabis patients should always work with a health care provider before making major changes to a treatment plan. However, casual cannabis consumers may have a few T-break tricks at their fingers.
Here are three tips for hacking cannabis tolerance:
Want to kick your tolerance without much disruption? Start consuming smaller and smaller amounts of cannabis. “Microdosing”, or consuming a very small amount of a substance on a continuous basis, is becoming more popular. Cannabis tolerance happens when larger and larger amounts of the herb are needed to produce an effect. Switching back to small doses of the plant will not likely be as effective as abstaining. However, it’s a decent compromise for a complete break.
2. Switch to cannabidiol (CBD)
Both psychoactive THC and nonpsychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) engage the endocannabinoid system. However, these two compounds work in fundamentally different ways. For some, switching to CBD may provide a nice alternative for THC.
3. Essential fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may also be beneficial when weaning off the cannabis plant. As the body’s own endocannabinoids (the human version of THC) are derived from fatty acids. However, there is no research testing the impact of essential fatty acid supplements for cannabis tolerance.
Some research suggests that the probiotic, lactobacillus acidophilus, also increases cannabinoid receptor expression in the gut. Though, there is no research that examines the effects of probiotic supplementation on cannabis tolerance, either.