The Real Science Between Addiction and Cannabis
Indented sections in grey are written by a trained and published biochemist - Chad Sallaberry.
A potential way to help alleviate harmful addictions may lie related to a plant often associated with addiction; Cannabis.
All of us have faced addiction in our lives and the majority of us are constantly battling with some form of addiction. When we hear the word addiction the first thing that comes to most of our minds are addictions to drugs like cocaine, meth, tobacco, pain killers, and maybe even Cannabis.
There is much more to addiction than drug abuse and most of us are consciously unaware of the various addictions that pull on us. Think about the pull you have to specific foods, the hard times you have shutting off from work, or even the unhealthy relationships you continue to go back to in your life.
These are all forms of addictions which stem from the beliefs we have about ourselves. These behaviors are then fueled by our biochemistry with molecules like dopamine, which motivates and drives us for MORE.
For instance, dopamine is known as the molecule of “More”. Dopamine does not use reason or ethics for how it chooses to motivate us. It simply fuels us to create and drives our behaviors to continue seeking whatever direction or goal we point it towards. It's a POWERFUL force inside of all of us that drives our biochemistry and dictates our feelings and behaviors towards a specific action and belief.
If we truly want to break the addictions in our lives that are not serving us, we must begin with understanding how the body and its systems that motivate our addictions and behaviors work. Once we have a better understanding of how things work, we can begin to work with our bodies' natural and evolutionary systems, harness their powers, and point them towards the goals we want to achieve in our lives.
The endocannabinoid system, which was only recently discovered in the late 1980s, is becoming heavily studied for its role in regulating numerous biochemical functions inside the body. The endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS) has the potential to ameliorate the dysfunctional behavior of dopaminergic receptor expression, that results from addiction, caused by either substance abuse or unbalanced lifestyle behavior choices such as overworking, overeating, and even from social deleterious life behaviors (overworking, overeating, etc..).
In other words, we believe the ECS can play a big role in helping us tweak our biochemistry to reduce the cravings and urges we get through addiction.
Currently the first response to treating addiction from a medical point of view, has been to attempt to flush out the substance from our system, so we will no longer be altered by its presence. However this method does not address the urges and cravings we get for “more”, once we stop participating in the behavior, which is the biggest factor that keeps us addicted to substances and/or behavior.
Is there a way to address these cravings and urges on a biochemical level? Is there a way for us to do this holistically through nature?
Two factors prevalent in all addictions are tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance can be illustrated as one abuses or uses a drug or by the repetitive behavior one makes in their life. Tolerance tells us that it takes more of said drug or behavior to elicit the original desired response. As tolerance builds, the body becomes dependent on the drug, and stopping the drug or behavior causes withdrawal and leaves us feeling unfulfilled in our life.
Withdrawal is what happens when one cuts off the substance or behavior that the body has become addicted to. Withdrawal symptoms can range from minor issues such as headaches, to factors severe as cardiac arrest depending on the substances and dosage⁵.A way to help visualize this is by thinking of a bucket. Ideally, this bucket would be filled with water. Normally, a substance introduced would “fill” a bucket. As one introduces a large amount of the substance to the body, the bucket “overflows”, and to compensate, the body wants to hold the water by introducing more buckets. As time goes on, and you introduce more of the substance due to tolerance, you need more and more buckets to make sure there is no overflow. Then if you were to stop introducing the substance, the body now has lots of these buckets open with no water in them. The result is withdrawal symptoms. In this analogy, the buckets are dopamine (DA) receptors, and the liquid would be Dopamine(DA). This is because the main system that seems affected by addiction is the Mesolimbic Dopamine pathway, and the dopaergic receptors which are present throughout⁶.
When we start understanding and becoming more aware of how this biochemistry works, we can then begin to consciously direct it to support our goals and where we want to go in life.
Our addictions are driven by the dopamine system. When we are not careful in directing where this dopamine is pointed it can drive us to places we don't want to be. Once we are there it also can feel overwhelming to get out, because our dopamine system has wired our patterns and behavior in this direction.
When we begin the process of stopping a habit, substance, or activity that interacts with our dopamine systems, we quickly begin noticing withdrawal symptoms which results in a STRONG pull back towards that activity. Depending on the degree in which dopamine is released and how long we have engaged in this same pattern, the stronger the pullback towards that activity will be.
The result is our biochemistry becomes imbalanced and it becomes very hard to escape from our patterns. Strong willpower and support are just one piece to the puzzle while the biochemical imbalance we have created is another piece.
Our body's endogenous cannabinoid system has been shown to play a major role in altering receptors in our dopamine system. One reason for this is that in this mesolimbic pathway, CB1 receptors (one of the main receptors in the ECS) are densely located throughout the mesolimbic system⁷. This allows the ECS to modulate DA levels throughout this system⁸. Not only this, but the ECS has also been shown to be densely expressed in the prefrontal cortex, which is relevant as the mesolimbic pathway runs through this section of the brain⁹⁻¹⁰. In this area, the ECS can modify not only DA levels but Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels as well¹¹. GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, has also been shown to play a role in addiction, and impacting DA levels¹². This helps illustrate the potential for the ECS to counteract the changes caused by substance abuse.
In the following posts, this series will continue to take an in-depth look at the mesolimbic pathway, DA binding, and the role the ECS can play in repairing both short-term and long-term damage caused by substance abuse.
Our body’s endocannabinoid system has been termed by scientists as the “Master Regulator” of the other body systems. This is because its primary role is to bring homeostasis and balance back to our bodies. It has been found through research that our ECS has an influence on almost all of the body's daily and automatic functions. It works differently than the other systems with retrograde signaling, which in short means it can help speed up or slow down specific functions in the body to maintain homeostasis and balance.
In the following blogs and articles, we will be taking a deep dive into how our ECS is connected to our dopamine systems and what imbalances there are when we look at addiction.
Once we have established these imbalances we will be able to more accurately pinpoint how our ECS can be used to address them. We will then explore the Cannabis plant and how the compounds found in Cannabis, such as cannabinoids and terpenes, can be used to support our ECS system to help us change our patterns and overcome our addictions.
It’s important for us to remember that we ALL face addictions in our lives and we all struggle with this on some level or another. It's not a matter of poor morals and bad ethics but rather a problem with the actual wiring of our systems and biochemistry. Yes we may choose to partake in a certain drug, activity, or relationship but once the connection is established and reinforced with time and our patterns, it can be extremely DIFFICULT for us to undo.
We are just now learning more about addiction and the biochemical imbalances that occur from it. Only from this understanding can we begin the work to understand how to make the changes we want.
For example, we all have seen a homeless alcoholic who chooses to leave his family and home to pursue more alcohol. There is extremely powerful biochemistry that pulls this individual towards more alcohol and for them alcohol is the priority and need to fill in that individual's life. We may think to ourselves when we see this individual, how could this person continue to choose alcohol over their family? To the alcoholic their brain and biochemistry is WIRED by dopamine to make Alcohol the top priority in their life. To them their actions and decisions feel perfectly logical and make sense. Dopamine has taken over and prioritized the alcohol as the single most important thing to them and justified their actions.
This is why we must approach addiction on a biochemical level and learn ways we can work with our biochemistry to make the addiction less of a pull and priority in our life.
I was enamored with the potential of the endogenous cannabinoid system from a young age, and wanted to learn more. To do that I realized I first needed to educate myself in the field of biochemistry in general. I attained my B.S. in biochemistry with a minor in molecular biology in 2019, While also publishing The Endocannabinoid System, Our Universal Regulator in 2018. After this, I wanted to gain a greater knowledge of biochemistry, and went on to earn my M.S. in biochemistry from UCCS in the summer of 2021. There I researched Alzheimer's disease, and learned more on neuronal function, neurodegenerative diseases, and the pathology of addiction. I published a second paper “Tau and membranes: Interactions that promote folding and condensation” In press. Through my time in my masters, I also took two courses in particular, a biochemistry of neurodegenerative disease, and biochemistry of drugs, which both helped me further my understanding of addiction, healthy brain function, and what happens when certain neural pathways go awry.
Now that we have established that addiction is an imbalance in our biochemistry and therefore our wiring to pull us towards a certain direction, don't you think it's important to better understand how it all works?
Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to understand our behaviors and what pulls us in the direction of these behaviors?
Wouldn’t it be beneficial to learn how we can use our bodies' natural systems such as the ECS to counteract and balance the systems and wiring that we would like to change?
This is exactly what we will be doing throughout this series and will build week by week on just how to do that.
The next article will explore both dopamine and the mesolimbic system where it binds and causes addictive tendencies. As well, we are going to look at how our ECS can affect our dopamine systems and therefore our addictions. What imbalances does addiction cause in our dopamine systems and how we can potentially counteract these addictions through the ECS.
Then we will take a look at Cannabis and how this plant's natural compounds can work to support our ECS in calling in the changes we want in our life and to aid us through the strong pull towards our addictive behaviors.
- NIDA. 2020, June 25. The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-use-addiction-basics on 2021, July 8
- Addiction Statistics - Facts on Drug and Alcohol Use. Addiction Center. (2021, March 24). https://www.addictioncenter.com/addiction/addiction-statistics/.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Alcohol and Public Health: Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI). Annual Average for United States 2011–2015 Alcohol-Attributable Deaths Due to Excessive Alcohol Use, All Ages. Available at: https://nccd.cdc.gov/DPH_ARDI/Default/Default.aspx. Accessed December 8, 2020.
- Population Reference Bureau. (n.d.). Up to Half of U.S. Premature Deaths Are Preventable; Behavioral Factors Key. PRB. https://www.prb.org/resources/up-to-half-of-u-s-premature-deaths-are-preventable-behavioral-factors-key/.
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- H. Hermann, G. Marsicano, B. Lutz, Coexpression of the cannabinoid receptor type 1 with dopamine and serotonin receptors in distinct neuronal subpopulations of the adult mouse forebrain., Neuroscience. 109 (2002) 451–60.
- Helbing, C., Brocka, M., Scherf, T., Lippert, M. T., & Angenstein, F. (2016). The role of the mesolimbic dopamine system in the formation of blood-oxygen-level dependent responses in the medial prefrontal/anterior cingulate cortex during high-frequency stimulation of the rat perforant pathway. Journal of cerebral blood flow and metabolism : official journal of the International Society of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism, 36(12), 2177–2193. https://doi.org/10.1177/0271678X15615535
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- The Effects of GABA Enhancing Medications on Individuals Addicted to Cocaine - 3 - Full Text View. Full Text View - ClinicalTrials.gov. (2015, July 8). https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00142883.