THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the highly psychoactive relative of CBD. With a descriptor such as “psychoactive,” this may sound both direct and yet cryptic at the same time. We know that THC affects both the mind and the body, but how does it do it? How does THC affect the brain?
Your brain is already a bunch of chemicals (kinda?)
Science whizzes, don’t come after us with technicalities. But it’s true. Your brain is comprised of cells, called neurons, that process information. These neurons use neurotransmitters to communicate. Adding in THC, which, when inhaled, slams the brain within a few seconds to give its two cents. THC, or any foreign chemical you introduce to your body, can then mimic or block certain neurotransmitters and have you feeling some type of way.
It’s easy and commonplace to imitate people under the influence of marijuana because the effects are profound and rapid. The areas of your brain that are equipped with high concentrations of cannabinoid receptors also have the responsibility of carrying out physical and mental processes such as your short-term memory, coordination, learning, and problem-solving. Alcohol plays around with these functions in a similar manner, making it especially dangerous and unpleasant to mix the two.
- Your hippocampus is the part of your brain in charge of short-term memory
- Your cerebellum is the coordination center of your brain and makes up 10% of your brain’s overall weight — aptly nicknamed the “little brain”
- Your basal ganglia direct unconscious motor movements
Short-term effects of THC
THC, once it enters your system, goes to work quickly. When inhaled, THC takes about a few seconds. If you ingest THC via an edible, you usually start to feel effects about 30 minutes afterward. This “slower release” sometimes puts people at risk of over-indulging, since they continue taking more and more of an edible thinking it’ll expedite symptoms.
In some people, THC has the effect of mellowing one out or slowing one down. In many people, anxiety is heightened and they may become paranoid. Regardless of demeanor changes, THC is being more widely used to help people with severe illnesses such as cancer (and nausea that often accompanies chemotherapy) and chronic pain. THC has been shown to be effective in this manner, although, this example involves a doctor’s supervision. As marijuana becomes increasingly legal — or less — more can be determined as studies become easier to conduct and more widely demanded.
In addition to problems with memory, coordination, etc., the short-term effects of THC also include:
- Distorted perception
- Increased heart rate
- Anxiety, paranoia, and panic attacks
- Dilated pupils
- An “odor” of marijuana
- Changes in appetite
How long does THC stay in your body?
The short-term effects of THC will last about 1–2 hours; however, the chemicals linger in your body for far longer. Depending on a wide variety of factors, such as your body composition, diet and exercise habits, and overall health, as well as the particular strain of marijuana, chemicals can stick around anywhere from 20 hours to 10 days.
Long-term effects of THC
Persistent THC use is linked to a drop in IQ, with a greater potential for long-term brain damage when usage begins during adolescence. Using marijuana regularly, starting at age 16, for example, will likely result in marijuana addiction in just a few years. This can be particularly detrimental as the brain is still “under construction” during this time.
Also according to this feature by the American Psychological Association, early-onset marijuana usage led to damage in the brain’s white matter, which allows communication between neurons. Proper communication between neurons is essential to all bodily functioning. Those who began using marijuana early also experienced lower inhibition later in life, as well as poor planning, flexibility, and abstract thinking skills.
There is also evidence that long-term marijuana use renders it more difficult to give up, as well as the evidence of psychotic episodes in adolescents. The long-term use of THC also seems to result in poor memory later in life. Pregnant mothers who use marijuana can pass along poor memory and cognitive development to their children.
Chronic marijuana use is still being studied; however, it’s commonly known that chronic users can experience symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms, that may last for several weeks after discontinuing use include the following:
- Mood and sleep difficulties
- Decreased appetite
- Physical discomfort
THC and addiction
In 2015, 138,000 people attempted to receive treatment for marijuana abuse, yet an estimated 4 million people were addicted. Without question, the more users rely on marijuana, the harder it is to quit without experiencing unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal, described above. As with anything, “the hallmark sign of addiction in compulsive use despite adverse effects.” If this sounds like you or someone you know, it’s time to get help.
There is also the question of whether marijuana is a gateway drug. While there is evidence to suggest marijuana users go on to use harder drugs, there are also plenty of incidences where that is not the case. THC or marijuana use leading to the use of harsher substances isn’t much different than alcohol use or nicotine use leading to the same.
What’s the bottom line?
As with any supplement or substance, your safety and health should be your number one priority. Never use substances that are questionable, and don’t risk your well-being or breaking the law for a few hours of fun. Listen to the advice of your physicians and keep them informed. Do your research, and do what you can to thrive!