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Cannabis is a plant of astonishing complexity, with more than 400 individual compounds and 100 cannabinoids – the latter being the special chemicals which make marijuana the special herb that it is. However, by far the most crucial cannabinoids are the two that most people are familiar with: cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

CBD vs. THC

CBD is non-psychoactive and has been key to the emergence of a health-focused, hemp-based industry in recent times. THC, on the other hand, will get you high as a kite and the recreational market has been graced with strains that have mind-boggling concentrations of THC (at the expense of CBD), so users can get even higher. We should note that, while it’s psychoactive, THC has therapeutic potential, too.

Concerns about THC, and particularly the high levels of it that we see in cannabis products today, are rife in the media – and gaining more prominence as legalization becomes a reality in several states across the nation. But how much of this is scaremongering? If high-THC cannabis is indeed a problem, could more therapeutic, wholesale CBD products, like tincture oils and salves be the solution? First, let’s consider the problem.

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Cannabis-related anxiety

Anxiety and paranoia are perhaps the two most well-known side effects of taking cannabis. They certainly do not affect everybody, but can be rather disturbing for those who do experience them while under the influence – not least because while the effects wear off after a couple of hours, it can feel like a lot longer.

Cannabis, and specifically the THC, has a mind-bending effect on reality – those not used to marijuana or hallucinogenic substances may be more vulnerable to the anxiety and paranoia. Being in a comfortable setting, such as with friends, can promote a more enjoyable trip. However, if a trip does turn sour, research on non-intoxicating CBD indicates it may be able to help.

Studies on the substance show that CBD is able to reduce anxiety symptoms in a controlled setting and that its benefits are not merely a placebo. Other investigations have found that CBD boosts the neurotransmitter Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), by virtue of being a positive allosteric modulator (PAM) of the GABA-A receptor (R). GABA is our primary inhibitory neurotransmitter and has a regulating effect on anxiety.

This influence may be effective at remedying cannabis-related anxiety. It is intriguing that the two cannabinoids can have the opposite effect on the condition, and additional research on what type of cannabis is most likely to cause anxiety would be worthwhile.

Cannabis, the Hippocampus, and Memory

There has been speculation for years that cannabis abuse can lead to memory and motivational problems. On the flipside, many people credit sensible use of cannabis as helping them to become more creative. In spiritual quarters, some say that marijuana enhances the “law of attraction”.

As psychoactive substances affect us all differently, with much depending on how we take them, general society’s understanding of cannabis is complex, and we certainly haven’t reached consensus on its benefits and risks. Some also argue that cannabis cannot be bad as it is a “natural plant” – safe to say, that argument isn’t exactly rooted in science.

Memory & Motivation

But research on THC and the hippocampus, a section of the brain heavily involved with our memory and motivation, has revealed that large quantities of the cannabinoid can have a neurotoxic effect, reducing structural mass (R). This adds a layer of scientific credence to the claim that heavy, long-term consumption of cannabis can negatively impact these mental functions. We should perhaps be even more concerned today, given the proliferation of high-THC cannabis, and a lack of awareness that the plant is much stronger than it used to be, and that this could be harmful.

However, as with anxiety, the effect that CBD has on the hippocampus is in complete and utter contrast to THC. Rather than being neurotoxic, CBD is neuroprotective to this region and can even stimulate hippocampal growth through a process called neurogenesis. The same 2015 study also found that a non-psychoactive cannabinoid called cannabichromene (CBC), which is found in low levels in many strains, can have the same benefit for the brain (R). As an aside, this shows why whole-plant products may be better for us than standard CBD and THC-isolate products, which exclude these other cannabinoids.

The Endocannabinoid System

A study published in the peer-reviewed Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research journal in 2018 demonstrated how a long-term CBD treatment plan may increase hippocampal subfield volumes (R).  Moreover, we know that the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is regulated by CBD, is implicated in cognition and memory. Their investigation also suggested that those whose brains have been affected most experienced the greatest recovery from taking CBD.

The experts concluded that their findings may provide new research avenues for the likes of depression and Alzheimer’s disease. That said, this was a small study, as stressed by the scientists, and that it would need to be repeated on a larger scale to confirm the link. However, it has provided great food for thought as the first study of its kind.

Our ECS and bodies have evolved with thousands of years of known cannabis use (R). Only in the past 50 years have humans been consuming strains with so much more THC than CBD. With cannabinoids having such a profound effect on the brain, it is essential that more research is carried out on the neurological effects of all types of cannabis. And if chronic cannabis use does have an adverse effect on memory and motivation, the correct cannabinoid concoction might have a restorative impact.

Final thoughts

High-THC strains have become commonplace in the cannabis industry, and many of us don’t give a second thought about how the cannabinoid profile of the plant has changed since the counter-culture days of the 1960s.

But as more studies come out about the specific features of CBD and THC, and the effects they have on us, it is becoming clear that much of their value is in how they complement each other. With high-THC strains, the moderating effects of CBD are lost, as users go in search of ever-stronger highs.

Preliminary research in various areas has given clues as to the potential long-term health risks of manipulating the cannabinoid composition of cannabis. The good news is that the problems that may arise – in the short and long run – from THC-rich cannabis may be manageable with CBD.

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