Marijuana’s official designation as a Schedule 1 drug something with “no currently accepted medical use” means it’s pretty tough to study. Yet both a growing body of research and numerous anecdotal reports link cannabis with several health benefits, including pain relief and helping with certain forms of epilepsy. In addition, researchers say there are many other ways marijuana might affect health that they want to better understand.
A massive new report released in January by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine helps sum up exactly what we know — and, perhaps more important, what we don’t know — about the science of weed. One of weed’s active ingredients, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, interacts with our brain’s reward system, the part that has been primed to respond to things that make us feel good, like eating and sex.
When overexcited by drugs, the reward system creates feelings of euphoria. This is also why some studies have suggested that excessive marijuana use can be a problem in some people — the more often you trigger that euphoria, the less you may feel during other rewarding experiences. Within a few minutes of inhaling marijuana, your heart rate can increase by between 20 and 50 beats a minute. This can last anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The new report found insufficient evidence to support or refute the idea that cannabis might increase the overall risk of a heart attack. The same report, however, also found some limited evidence that smoking could be a trigger for a heart attack. Pot also contains cannabidiol, or CBD — and this chemical, while not responsible for getting you high, is thought to be responsible for many of marijuana’s therapeutic effects such as pain relief or potentially treating certain kinds of childhood epilepsy.
The new report also found conclusive or substantial evidence — the most definitive levels — that cannabis can be an effective treatment for chronic pain, which could have to do with both CBD and THC. Pain is also “by far the most common” reason people request medical marijuana, according to the report. One of the ways scientists think it may help with pain is by reducing inflammation, a component of painful illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis.
A preliminary 2005 study of 58 patients with RA, roughly half of whom were given a placebo and roughly half of whom were given a cannabis-based medicine called Sativex, found “statistically significant improvements in pain on movement, pain at rest, quality of sleep” for patients on Sativex. Other studies testing both other cannabinoid products and inhaled marijuana have shown similar pain-relieving effects, according to the report.
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Some people with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis could also benefit from marijuana use, studies suggest.A 2014 paper, for example, describes two studies of people with chronic Crohn’s in which half were given the drug and half were given a placebo. That study showed a decrease in symptoms in 10 of 11 subjects using cannabis, compared with just four of 10 on the lacebo. But when the researchers did a follow-up reports using low-dose CBD, they saw no effect in the patients.
A drug called Epidiolex, which contains CBD, may be on its way to becoming the first of its kind to win approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of rare forms of childhood epilepsy.
The company that makes it, GW Pharma, is exploring CBD for its potential use in people with Dravet syndrome, a rare form of childhood-onset epilepsy that is associated with multiple types of seizures. In March, the company came out with phase three trial data that showed the drug had some positive results. Researchers say that, for now, we need more research before we’ll know whether cannabis can help with these diseases.
It may throw off your balance, as it influences activity in the cerebellum and basal ganglia, two brain areas that help regulate balance, coordination, reaction time, and posture.
Feeling as if time is sped up or slowed down is one of the most commonly reported effects of using marijuana. A 2012 paper sought to draw some more solid conclusions from some of the studies on those anecdotal reports, but it was unable to do so.
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“Even though 70% of time estimation studies report overestimation, the findings of time production and time reproduction studies remain inconclusive,” the paper said.
In a 1998 study that used magnetic resonance imaging to focus on the brains of volunteers on THC, the authors noted that many had altered blood flow to the cerebellum, which most likely play a role in our sense of time.
Limitations on what sort of marijuana research is allowed make it particularly difficult to study this sort of effect.
A case of the munchies is no figment of the imagination — both casual and heavy marijuana users tend to overeat when they smoke.
Marijuana may effectively flip a circuit in the brain that is normally responsible for quelling the appetite, triggering us to eat instead, according to a recent study of mice.
It all comes down to a special group of cells in the brain that are normally activated after we have eaten a big meal to tell us we’ve had enough. The psychoactive ingredient in weed appears to activate just one component of those appetite-suppressing cells, making us feel hungry rather than satisfied.
Many doctors say that weed can mess with your memory by changing the way your brain processes information, but scientists still aren’t sure exactly how this happens. Still, several studies suggest that weed interferes with short-term memory, and researchers tend to see more of these effects in inexperienced or infrequent users than in heavy, frequent users.
Importantly, in most cases, saying cannabis is connected to an increased risk doesn’t mean marijuana use caused that risk. Scientists can’t say for sure whether marijuana causes depression or depressed people are simply more likely to smoke. But one study from the Netherlands suggests that smoking weed could raise the risk of depression for young people who already have a special serotonin gene that could make them more vulnerable to depression. Those findings are bolstered by which found moderate evidence that cannabis use was linked to a small increased risk of depression. Get a Florida medical marijuana card.