Understanding Addiction & Cannabis Withdrawals: Findings, Studies, Theories

Taking a close look at cannabis addiction and withdrawal symptoms.

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There are opposing sides to every argument, each with its own evidence, support, and following. It's no different when looking at whether cannabis can be addictive or not, and whether anyone can become dependent on the plant for either medical or non-medical reasons. However, it is certain that if one is susceptible to withdrawals from cannabis abstinence, symptoms are far less painful and traumatizing than those of other "drugs". 

Until there are more clinical outcome studies focused on finding the truth about the plant without bias leaning the results in one direction, it's up to us on a personal level to decide if cannabis is a benefit or threat to our overall health. 

 

Difference Between 'Dependence' and 'Addiction'

When we depend on something for survival, it doesn't necessarily mean we're addicted to it. We depend on water for hydration, but we aren't addicted to it; we don't have a compulsive need to drink water all the time to enhance our mood. The same can go for someone that's had to have their thyroid removed. They may be prescribed a medication that mimics the hormones a thyroid releases, but it doesn't mean the patient's brain is hard-wired to "get a fix" of thyroid medication. It's just a med depended upon to maintain homeostasis. 

Addiction on the other hand, creates an unhealthy situation for both our body and our mind - hindering homeostasis. We think about the substance, thing, or activity constantly until we experience it and feel satisfied for a short period - until the craving comes back. Addiction means we give up our money and our time in search of satisfying our craving; it becomes a priority over what really matters in our life, including health and relationships with family and friends.

Keep this in mind when anyone talks about addiction or dependence.

 

Taking a Look at 'Addiction'

Addiction is often defined as "the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity," with the great majority associating the word with negative connotations. On a medical level, it's definition can go further, being "a medical condition that is characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences." However, what most fail to see about addiction is that it's everywhere; it's present in all our lives, be it to our phones, to music, to a television program, to our morning cup of coffee, to spending time with the new love in our life, or to taking our morning vitamins and pills so that we are healthy and energetic the rest of the day.

Our brains are programmed to chase after rewarding stimuli, with the release of "feel-good" hormones and neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin to name a few) that boost mood and overall experience regarding the situation that helped release them. It's up to us to decide if a 'substance, thing, or activity' produces more pros than cons in our lives, or vice versa - pushing us towards questioning whether cannabis is a 'bad' or 'good' addiction we can eventually acquire if acquirable at all. 

 

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Differences Between 'Good' and 'Bad' Addiction 

If we are praised for completing a rigorous task at work, dopamine is released in our brain which drives our pleasure-seeking behavior, enforcing us to stick with our work ethic If we just completed a great workout, serotonin is released, producing the sense of accomplishment that drives us into another workout the next day. And if we spend time with our loved ones; the people that seem to "take our stress away," then oxytocin is released in our brain, ensuring we seek out spending more time with the same people. 

These are examples of situations we can become "addicted" to, though they're regarded as good addictions or habits because they help improve our lives without shaking the overall quality of our health. In fact, such situations improve our health, often leading to greater; better habits that can result in success and fitness.

It is when we form a habit that, though seemingly feels good in the moment, produces either an unhealthy or unsuccessful outcome in the future that it's then defined as a 'bad' addiction. If we make a habit of eating fatty breakfast foods every morning, this will lead to poor health even though it might taste good. If we make a habit of procrastinating our workload, this will deteriorate potential success even if we had fun playing video games while procrastinating.

In regards to drugs, drug users feel good in the moment - they may use, go to a party or the like, have a great time with friends or other users, but suffer through withdrawals (a hangover) and the temptation; the need to find the drug again. Instead of engaging in activities that produce higher levels of "feel-good" hormones & neurotransmitters in our brains, drug-users flip the sequence around. They raise their levels of hormones and neurotransmitters first, then embark in finding activities to pursue. This leads to the depletion of such "feel-good" hormones in our brains, meaning we will feel either depressed, tired, or both after using a hard drug that causes the release of too many hormones and neurotransmitters. This is partially why using it again seems like a good idea when in fact, the body needs to regenerate such hormones/neurotransmitters through rest and proper nutrition. 

 

  

Depending on Substances to Enhance Well-Being

Consider how a habit affects other habits. Some people take "pre-workout" or vitamins and engage in a rigorous morning workout which then motivates them to eat a healthy breakfast and complete other work and tasks diligently throughout the day. Others take a prescribed medication to do the same, and though it may enhance their mood, it may then create digestive issues such as constipation or suppress appetite causing one to skip breakfast. Both are consuming a supplement to enhance well-being, but one creates more problems down the road that lead to bad habits and health issues.

 Discover More: The Greener Pre & Post Workout Supplement: Cannabis

While it is never recommended to rely upon a substance to improve mood or reduce pain in the body, some of us have no other option as we may suffer from natural hormonal imbalances or chronic pain from an injury/disease. Therefore, in the pursuit of finding the right type of medication or supplement to improve overall quality of life, it's imperative to find one that doesn't cause ill side-effects, creating the need for another prescription to solve said side-effects.

This is where cannabis comes in.

We're all aware that there's quite a few pharmaceuticals on the shelves these days that lead to addiction, mainly those that are opiate-based, and that withdrawals from such medications are painful and unsettling (cravings, the shakes, sweating, chills, nausea, insomnia, vomitting...). However, with cannabis, withdrawals are quite minimal and far less traumatizing for both the (former) consumer and their family. 

 Learn More: Replacing Opiates with Cannabis: Studies, Findings & Understandings

 

Withdrawal Symptoms from Frequent Cannabis Consumption

Let's say you've already decided to try cannabis for whatever reason - and you've been consuming it frequently for the past six months. What would happen if you were to suddenly stop consuming it? Either nothing - or: 

  • Hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness during the day)
  • Weakness
  • Depressed Mood
  • Anxiety
  • Psychomotor Retardation (your body language & sometimes speech slows)
  • Irritability
  • Decreased appetite

Unfortunately, there are very few studies in regards to cannabis withdrawal symptoms, with most information collected on the subject old and dependent on anecdotal recall. A study published in 2008 entitled, "Cannabis withdrawal in the United States: a general population study" asked participants about their backgrounds, cannabis and other drug use, as well as how they felt after stopping cannabis use. Of the 2,613 that reported frequent cannabis use (either three or more uses per week), only 1,119 reported never binge-drinking or using other drugs. Of the 1,119 people that only used cannabis, 44.2% reported experiencing symptoms after halting their cannabis use. The most frequent symptoms reported are listed above. Other symptoms reported included:

  • Yawning
  • Muscle Aches
  • Vivid Dreams
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches 
  • Sweating
  • Nausea 
  • Restlessness

Keep in mind this does not take into consideration whether or not the people using cannabis had these symptoms before they began consuming frequently. Whether this information leads us towards understanding withdrawal symptoms from addiction is unknown - they may indicate the symptoms a user had before beginning frequent cannabis use.

If and when cannabis withdrawals do surface, the worst of the symptoms occur between 2-4 days after quitting. "The cannabis withdrawal syndrome: current insights," a study published in 2017 being a collaborative of previous studies regarding cannabis withdrawals, highlighted again that the most common withdrawal symptoms are irritability, nervousness/anxiousness, sleep difficulty, decreased appetite/weight loss, depressed mood, and one physical symptom such as abdominal pain, shakiness/tremors, sweating, fever, chills, or headache.

The collaborative study found that once four days were over remaining abstinent, symptoms progressively decreased, until around day 16 when most symptoms were either gone or mild. However, this study relied on other studies - most of which in turn relied on patients reporting their cannabis use as well as their symptoms. 

 

Cannabis Addiction: Is it Real?

Based on the evidence found in current studies, noting around 44% on average of frequent users experience withdrawals after quitting cannabis use, the mere fact that withdrawals can happen is a sign that addiction can indeed take place.

However, addiction to cannabis can be better compared to caffeine addiction rather than any addiction to a hard drug. While the mind can depend on the plant for a multitude of reasons, it's far easier to suddenly quit and handle the withdrawals than if one were to suddenly quit heroine, cocaine, or an opiate-based pharmaceutical just to name a few examples.

The natural plant has an effect on the body and mind, and like any other drug, pharmaceutical, supplement, or even vitamin - there is a limit to how much we should be consuming based on our biology and how it acts synergistically (or adversely) with the other medications we may be taking.

Too much of anything can lead to potential health risks, and cannabis is no different.

There has never been a reported death from either overdosing on cannabis or withdrawing from it, but note that one can become dependent on it for a multitude of reasons. Medical consumers often use cannabis for: 

  • Chronic Pain Management
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Glaucoma
  • Movement disorders (Parkinson's, Huntington's, Tourette's)
  • Appetite Stimulation & Nausea
  • Seizures
  • Migraines

If medical consumers were to quit their cannabis use, their symptoms would return, thus making them dependent on the plant but not necessarily addicted. 

It is when all we can think about is cannabis that it becomes a true problem. If you or someone you love is always raking up money for the plant, consistently talks about it, or prioritizes it above any other responsibilities, it may be time to face the possibility that addiction is at hand.

All in all, what is ultimately needed is the development of a true cannabis addiction and withdrawal scale, so physicians can properly diagnose and find various treatments for cannabis addiction and withdrawal symptoms. Until more clinical trials incorporating a control group are measured, we must rely on patient honesty and anecdotal evidence. It will be up to you to decide whether or not you want to try cannabis to manage an ailment, and it will be up to you to monitor your intake and ensure risk of addiction remains on the side-lines.

 Learn More: Timeline: Discovering the Endocannabinoid System

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