- Addiction & recovery
Vanessa de la Cruz, MD
November 3, 2021
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main compound in cannabis (marijuana), responsible for most of the plant’s psychoactive effects. It’s one of the earliest psychedelics known, with evidence indicating that the Chinese have been using cannabis extracts as a herbal remedy since the first century AD.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), THC is similar in chemical structure to the brain’s natural chemical, anandamide. This similarity allows THC to attach and activate cannabinoid receptors in the brain associated with pleasure, thinking, memory, concentration, movement, coordination, and sensory and time perception.
THC is classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal at the federal level. However, multiple states in the U.S. have now legalized cannabis and THC-based products for recreational and medical purposes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved synthetic THC-based products such as Marinol, Syndros, and Cesamet to treat nausea in people undergoing chemotherapy and for the treatment of anorexia-associated with HIV.
Effects of THC
THC activates the brain’s reward system by stimulating the neurons to release the neurotransmitter dopamine at higher levels than the natural production level. This release results in intoxication and a sense of relaxation.
Other immediate effects of THC include:
- Heightened sensory perception (colors seeming brighter and sounds seeming louder)
- Increased appetite
- Altered perception of time
- A sense of wellbeing
The effects of THC can be immediately felt when cannabis is smoked and around 30 minutes to one hour when cannabis is consumed with food or beverages or taken as pills. These effects may last anywhere between three hours or more. And traces of THC can remain detectable in the body for weeks.
Side Effects of THC
THC can cause certain side effects depending on the specific strain and the method of consumption. These side effects are usually part of the compound’s psychoactive properties and are rarely life-threatening.
Some of the side effects of THC include:
- Dry mouth
- Dry, itchy, or red eyes
- Increased heart rate
THC alters the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex functions, resulting in impaired thinking and interfering with a person’s ability to learn and perform complicated tasks. In addition, THC also impacts the cerebellum and basal ganglia functioning, leading to slower reaction time and coordination problems.
Health Risks of THC
Brain imaging studies have revealed that daily exposure to THC in adolescence is linked to altered connectivity and reduced volumes in brain regions responsible for memory, learning, and impulse control. Recent studies also suggest that long-term use of THC-based products can cause permanent IQ loss of six to eight points, especially when THC use starts during adolescence and progresses into adulthood.
Although fatal overdose on THC is unlikely, the consumption of too much THC can cause negative reactions such as:
- Extreme confusion
- Fast heartbeat
- Delusions or hallucinations
- Increased blood pressure
- Severe nausea or vomiting
These negative reactions can sometimes result in unintentional injuries such as a motor vehicle crash, fall, or poisoning.
Another health risk of THC is dependence. Since THC triggers a surge of dopamine, it reinforces substance-seeking behavior that increases the risk of physical dependence. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), around one in 10 people who use marijuana experience dependence. And this increases to one in six when its use starts before the age of 18. Individuals with a dependence on THC may face various unpleasant withdrawal symptoms during detox.
THC Withdrawal Symptoms
THC withdrawal symptoms may not be as severe as the withdrawal symptoms from other substances such as opioids, alcohol, and cocaine. However, chronic use of THC-based products can generate various physical and psychological symptoms during detox. Since the body has been accustomed to functioning with a regular supply of THC, the sudden absence may throw the body into a shock and trigger unpleasant reactions.
The symptoms of THC withdrawal include:
- Decreased appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Fever and chills
THC withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe and vary from one person to another. However, THC detox rarely causes any life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
THC Detox Timeline
THC withdrawal symptoms typically begin within one to three days of detox, peak within ten days, and dissipate within a month. During the first 24-48 hours, people may experience restlessness, stomach pain, nausea, loss of appetite, cravings, and sweating. Withdrawals may worsen during two to three days of detox and include symptoms such as insomnia, irritability, and intense cravings. Although the physical symptoms of THC withdrawal may cease after the substance has left the system, the psychological symptoms may last for a longer period.
Some individuals may experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), lasting between six months and two years. PAWS symptoms may vary from one person to another but generally include symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue, irritability, and lack of motivation.
THC Withdrawal Treatment and Management
Although THC detox rarely causes any life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, it’s advisable to seek professional support to detox from THC to ensure success and long-term abstinence. This is especially true for people who have experienced a relapse before, practice poly-substance misuse, have a history of mental health disorders, or have other significant medical conditions.
Resources to help you through your THC detox include:
- Detoxification Centers – These centers offer short-term detox programs that provide constant assistance and medical attention.
- Inpatient Rehabilitation Centers – These centers provide round-the-clock supervision and care for more than 25 days to help people quit using substances, including THC-based products, and manage the underlying conditions that led to substance misuse.
- Intensive Outpatient Centers – Intensive outpatient programs help people overcome their dependence on THC and address the underlying root causes of their substance use disorder. However, these centers operate in the morning or evening and do not require people to reside at the facility like inpatient services. Individuals must meet multiple times a week for a few hours to engage in counseling and behavioral therapies.
Best THC Detox Tips
In addition to seeking professional support, it’s also a good idea to follow the self-care methods listed below:
- Drink plenty of water and avoid caffeinated or sugary beverages like soda.
- Avoid processed and greasy foods that make you feel sluggish and irritable. Instead, have healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, and lean meat to fuel the body.
- Ensure to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day.
- Spend ample time around people who support you and join support groups to find like-minded people in recovery who can help you through your journey.
Recovery for life.
Our mission at Eleanor Health is to help people affected by addiction live amazing lives. We deliver whole-person, comprehensive care and are passionate about transforming the quality, delivery, and accessibility of addiction & mental health treatment. Our actions are rooted in respect for each member's values, culture, and life experiences, and our commitment to their wellbeing is unwavering and without judgement.