An Introduction to Dopamine
You know the ‘feel good’ feeling you get when you are rolling weed and about to smoke? The feeling that hits even before smoking and kicks in before feeling stoned? That’s dopamine, one of the more abundant neurotransmitters in the body.
Dopamine is can be thought of as ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter and plays a significant role in feelings of pleasure and happiness. Many other functions of the body are influenced by dopamine include sleep, memory, attention, motivation and voluntary body movements.
Dopamine is there for our survival. It gives us a feeling of reward when we do something that is important to survival like eating and having an orgasm. It helped us to evolve and survive as a species.
But today, we live in a world of excess, but our bodies and minds are still wired to a world of scarcity. Our dopamine system is still working, but is drawn towards hedonistic desires, rather than living requirements.
Marijuana and Dopamine
When you smoke weed, you stimulate dopamine release. Basically, marijuana use amplifies pleasure sensations that come from the signals of excess dopamine. Since this chemical increases pleasure that lasts longer than the typical dopamine “high”, the drive to reach that level of euphoria grows stronger each time you smoke. We, of course, know this as tolerance!
“A key feature of all addictive drugs is the ability to increase synaptic dopamine levels in the striatum, a mechanism involved in their rewarding and motivating effects…. Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component in cannabis, induces dopamine release in the human striatum.”
If you are smoking weed a lot, and you smoke more because your tolerance goes up, you are altering the natural balance of dopamine in your brain. The brain figures out that an overabundance of dopamine is being produced and the brain doesn’t feel the need to product as much, because it’s getting that dopamine from weed.
When dopamine is released in the brain, without realizing it, we are training ourselves to want to repeat whatever it was that produced the dopamine rush. It’s our survival nature. The dopamine rush and associated high is one of the ways that you get ‘psychologically addicted’ to marijuana. We are all hard-wired to be dopamine seekers. Smoking weed becomes a shortcut for dopamine release.
Even if you aren’t a lazy stoner, you probably know one. They are getting all of their dopamine from weed, so their reward system is messed up. They don’t seek pleasure from ‘natural’ activities like food, exercise, or sex because they are overstimulated on dopamine from weed.
As seen above, while marijuana does not produce the same type of chemical dependence as other “street drugs”, it does change the way the brain produces and triggers dopamine release.
Dopamine and Marijuana Withdrawal
When there is no dopamine there is no pleasure. When there is no pleasure there is feelings of depression, lethargy and foggy brain. Many people assume that when they cease using marijuana that their body will simply detox, and with the drug out of their system, their brain will automatically begin producing dopamine again. While this is the case, it does take time.
Marijuana withdrawal is very real. For heavy smokers, the first 30 days can be a rough ride. If you have ever quit smoked weed before, or you are looking to quit now, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Your brain is used to getting a shot of dopamine from smoking, and now that you have taken away the dopamine source, you get stressed and anxious. You are craving to get back to baseline, but your baseline has been altered because of how much weed you have smoked, so while you have reached ‘higher highs’, now it’s payback time with ‘lower lows’.
Without an artificial or unnatural source of dopamine, your brain will repair itself and the lows will dissipate as your brain starts to compensate. After the 30 day period, some people still don’t quite feel normal. The general consensus is that an estimated 90 days must pass before the brain’s healing process can start to trend towards baseline. From my anecdotal research, post-acute withdrawal can go take as long as 18 months but you WILL notice progress along the way.