Marijuana, although illegal at the federal level, has been approved for medical use in many states. Medical marijuana (also called cannabis) is commonly prescribed to help treat HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy, among other conditions, according to Mayo Clinic. Cannabis is also known to produce a variety of side effects, including withdrawal symptoms. Read on for three key facts you should know about marijuana withdrawal.
Cannabis can lead to dependence.
Scientists are still working to understand exactly how cannabis causes dependence in regular users, but it likely has something to do with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s main psychoactive ingredient.
“The mechanism isn’t fully understood, but typically, when the body is flooded with THC, it removes some of the receptors with which the THC binds,” Jordan Tishler, M.D., Founder of InhaleMD and President of the Association of Cannabinoid Specialists, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “This is called down-regulation.”
He adds that the primary role of these receptors is not to accommodate THC but rather to interact with the cannabinoids that our bodies naturally produce. These are known as endocannabinoids.
“So if you remove some of those receptors because there’s too much THC floating around, there may no longer be enough receptors for the endocannabinoids,” Tishler says. “This would lead to withdrawal symptoms. Thankfully, those receptors will come back if the flood of THC is reduced to more reasonable levels.”
Nearly half of regular marijuana users experience withdrawal.
A 2020 review published in JAMA Network Open reports that cannabis withdrawal syndrome affects 47% of “regular or dependent” cannabis users.
According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statisitical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a person is said to have cannabis withdrawal syndrome if they experience at least three of the following symptoms within seven days of reducing their cannabis intake:
- Irritability, anger, or aggression
- Nervousness or anxiety
- Sleep problems
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Depressed mood
- Physical symptoms like sweating, headaches, nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain
You can avoid marijuana withdrawal.
“The best approach to dealing with these problems is to avoid them in the first place,” Tishler explains. “Cannabis can be used as medicine at very low doses, and at that level, dependence and withdrawal are not a problem. It is only with excessive higher doses that we see problems develop.”
He adds that withdrawal symptoms are less common among people who use cannabis medically, as advised by a physician.
“This is why patients should use cannabis under medical guidance, and why many patients who start as recreational users have a harder time.”
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