Marijuana is currently designated as a schedule 1 drug – a substance without any accepted medical use – and this means that it is hard for many scientists to study the drug.
Despite this, a combination of anecdotal reports and numerous research studies have linked cannabis use to several health benefits that include pain relief and relieving certain forms of epilepsy. Cannabis use has many other effects on health that researchers are looking into.
Information from a new comprehensive report released by the National Academies ad Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) in January 2017 pretty much sums up everything we know and more importantly, don’t know about the effects of weed.
Medical Cannabis Health Effects
Using Marijuana gives you a good feeling, well, obviously!
THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in cannabis, interacts with the user’s brain reward system. And this is the part that responds to things that make us feel good, such as sex and eating. When excited by a drug, this system creates a euphoric feeling.
It is this finding that explains why some researchers have come to the conclusion that excessive cannabis consumption can be a problem – the more you use it to trigger this euphoria, the less of it you may feel when engaged in other rewarding experiences.
1. It Increases Heart Rate
Cannabis use can also increase your heart rate in the short term. The National Institute of Drug Abuse says that heart rate can increase by 25 to 50 beats per minute within the first five minutes of inhaling weed. This can last for 30 minute to three hours depending on the amount consumed.
The report however, concluded that the evidence at hand was insufficient to support or refute the idea that cannabis use might increase the user’s overall risk of suffering a heart attack. However, there is some limited evidence that smoking could trigger a heart attack in the short term.
2. You Can Use It To Relieve Certain Forms Of Pain
Cannabis also contains another active ingredient called CBD (cannabidiol). While this chemical won’t get you high, it has been proven to be responsible for most of the drug’s therapeutic effects such as treating select forms of childhood epilepsy and pain relief.
The report also confirmed that there was enough evidence that marijuana can be an effective treatment for chronic pain, but this could be due to a combination of CBD and THC. Pain is for the most part, the most common reason patients request medical cannabis.
3. It’s Particularly Helpful With Rheumatoid Arthritis
It is very effective at reducing the discomfort associated with arthritis, and it does this by fighting the inflammation. In a 2005 study that involved 58 rheumatoid arthritis patients, 26 were given a placebo while the other 26 took a cannabis based drug called Sativex. The group that took Sativex reported significant improvements in pain at rest, pain on movement, and quality of sleep. Similar pain relieving effects were reported in other studies that involved use of inhaled marijuana and other cannabidiol based products.
4. Inflammatory Bowel Conditions Like Ulcerative Colitis Can Be Treated By Marijuana Use
For instance, a marijuana research paper published in 2014 described two separate studies of Chronic Crohn disease sufferer’s. There was a marked decrease in symptoms among 10 of the 11 subjects who were given cannabis, while the 4 who were given a placebo continued suffering from the symptoms. However, the researchers found out that the effects only manifested when high dose CBD was used.
5. It Helps With Epileptic Seizures
Epidiolex is a pharmaceutical drug that may soon be the first product to get approved by the FDA for treating some rare forms of childhood epilepsy. GW Pharma, the pioneering company that produces it, is exploring the potential for using CBD to treat a form of childhood epilepsy called Dravet syndrome that is characterized by multiple types of seizures.
In March 2016, they released the results of their phase three trial that showed the positive effects of the drug and the data showed that there was a potential that Epidolex could be effectively used to treat epilepsy.
6. It Can Destroy Your Balance
Marijuana use may mess up your sense of balance since it influences activity in the basal ganglia and cerebellum, the two brain areas responsible for helping regulate balance posture, coordination, and reaction time.
7. It Can Distort Your Sense Of Time
One of the most common effects of marijuana use is the feeling that time has either slowed down or sped up. A 2012 research paper sought to isolate a solid conclusion from many anecdotal reports, but failed to do so.
“While 70% of the time estimating studies carried out reported overestimation, the findings on time production and reproduction remain inconclusive,” according to the paper.
However, another study carried out in 1998 that involved the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scans) to study the brain of THC users found that most of them had altered blood flow in the cerebellum and this is what most likely distorts the user’s sense of time.
All in all, this kind of effect is particularly hard to study given the limitations on the extent of marijuana research.
It also turns the eyes red, mainly because it expands the blood vessels, including those in the eyes.
8. Munchies Are A Common Side Effect
Munchies are real, and both heavy and casual marijuana users tend to eat more after they have smoked. It is suggested that marijuana effectively flips a circuit in the brain that is responsible for quelling appetite, instead triggering the user to eat, as evidenced by a recent study on mice.
This effect is all thanks to the existence of a special group of cells in the brain that are typically activated after the consumption of a big meal. It is what informs us when we have had enough food. Marijuana’s psychoactive component instead activates one section of these appetite suppressing cells, inducing feelings of hunger when we are in fact, full.
9. Marijuana Affects The Memory Formation Process
While no one knows for sure how this happens, cannabis can mess up your memory by altering the way your mind processes information. However, a few studies indicate that marijuana interferes with short term memory, and this effect is more evident among infrequent or inexperienced user than in frequent, experienced cannabis users.
Unsurprisingly, short term memory loss is mostly evident in an acute sense – and this tends to be immediately after use, when you are high.
However, the NASEM report shows that there was very little evidence to suggest that marijuana use impaired academic achievement. This has, however, been shown to be true for individuals who start using weed on a regularly basis during adolescence (marijuana use at this stage has also been connected to the risk of problematic use).
It is important to note, however, that stating that marijuana is connected to a risk doesn’t mean that its use caused that particular risk.
10. It Could Increase Feelings Of Depression In Some People
It’s hard to say whether depressed people tend to smoke or marijuana causes depression. However, a study carried out in the Netherlands suggests that marijuana use could increase the risk of depression among young individuals who possess a certain serotonin gene that makes them more vulnerable to depression.
This finding is backed by the NASEM report as it links cannabis use to a minor increase in the risk of depression.
11. Marijuana Use Could Increase The Risk Of Schizophrenia
The same NASEM report also outlines substantial evidence of an increase in the risk of developing schizophrenia among frequent marijuana users. This is a particular concern for people with a genetic risk of developing schizophrenia according to some studies.
12. Regular Cannabis Use May Increase The Risk Of Total Social Anxiety
According to some researchers, it is possible that CBD could be an effective treatment for social anxiety disorders, a possibility that a number of institutions are currently studying. To sum it up, the report concluded that the evidence connecting marijuana use to increased risk of most forms of social anxiety disorders was limited.
However, according to some authors, there is moderate evidence that moderate marijuana use could increase the risk of social anxiety. But as with most other cases, cannabis use is associated with certain ill effects. It’s hard to know whether the increase in risk of social anxiety is due to marijuana use or whether higher risk of social anxiety motivated people to use marijuana.
13. Regular Cannabis Use Is Linked To Certain Changes In The Brain
However, scientists can’t quite decide what causes the other. For instance, researchers used MRI scans to study the brains of adults who have been using marijuana at least 4 times a week for several years.
When compared with those who never or rarely used weed, the orbito-frontal cortex among long term users tended to be smaller. The orbito-frontal cortex plays a key role in processing information and creating emotion. However, the heavy users also had stronger cross-brain connections, and smokers usually develop to compensate for this, according to scientists.
However, the study didn’t show that pot use resulted in the shrinking of these regions of the brain. There are many other studies that suggest that people with a smaller orbito-frontal cortex are more likely to start smoking weed.
However, virtually all research points to the fact that individuals who commence regular marijuana use during adolescence are more susceptible to cannabis induced brain changes.
14. Smoking Weed Affects Lungs Without Increasing Lung Cancer Risk
Just like with cigarettes, smoking marijuana on a regular basis could increase the risk and instances of chronic bronchitis, according to the NASEM report. The same report also says that there is evidence that you can relieve those symptoms by simply quitting weed.
Yet and perhaps surprisingly for some, the same report also found moderate evidence that pot use in no way increases the risk of lung, head, and neck cancers associated with cigarette smoking.
15. Marijuana May Improve Certain Forms Of Athletic Performance
There are quite a few athletes, especially those involved in certain adventure and endurance sports, who say that weed use boosts both their enjoyment of the game and their athletic performance. This could be attributed to the pain-relieving or anti-inflammatory effects that hasten the recovery process and make it possible to push through hard workouts.
However, marijuana could also impair athletic performance since it affects motivation and coordination. However, more research is needed before conclusive statements can be made regarding the effects of marijuana on athletic performance.
16. Cannabis Use Could Affect Pregnant Mothers Negatively
The NASEM report links prenatal cannabis exposure – this happens when the expectant woman uses cannabis – with lower birth weight. However, there is no evidence that weed use by the pregnant mother caused pregnancy complications.
Neither did they find any evidence to suggest that it could increase the risk that the newborn would have to be cared for in a neonatal intensive care unit since it doesn’t affect the timing of the delivery. Moreover, THC, CBD, and other cannabinols – all the active ingredients in marijuana – do not cross the blood barrier between mother and child.
There are many unanswered questions about how cannabis use affects both the brain and body for which more research is needed.
Medical Cannabis Health Effects Conclusion
Based on the NASEM report and numerous conversations with scientists who have conducted considerable research on marijuana, there are many good reasons to believe the cannabis has a high potential for use in the field of conventional medicine. But at the same time, it is fair to say that as with most other substances, we know that cannabis use is not risk free – at least no all the time.
More research should be conducted to find out the best ways to treat the medial conditions that cannabis has been linked with helping. Researchers should also develop ways of minimizing the risk that are inherent in recreational or medical marijuana use.
“This kind of research is absolutely essential if we are to know the best way of using it, the safest way of administering it for medical use, and the real (not anecdotal) risks of using the drug,” concludes Staci Gruber, director of McLean Hospital’s Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program and associate professor at the Harvard Medical school.