It’s 3pm – the last stretch of the work day, and your mind is jumping around. You know if you could just focus, you would knock out your last few tasks and be done – but your mind just won’t cooperate. Should you reach for a joint or a tincture?
As with all things in cannabis, it depends. There is certainly some evidence that cannabis may be helpful with increasing focus, in the right dose with the right terpenes and cannabinoids. Cannabis may also be able to help you reach a flow state, where ideas and focus are effortless.
The little research that exists today isn’t cut and dry, but it does identify several factors that influence whether cannabis can help you focus. The best weed strains to help you focus have a balance of CBD and THC, are energizing and stress-relieving, and have a terpene profile that includes pinene, linalool, or beta-caryophyllene.
Strain names are an unreliable method of finding cannabis that works for you, but for simplicity’s sake, these are the strains mentioned in the article:
Focus vs. flow state
Being able to focus well is essential for any adult. Without focus, nothing gets done, from work tasks to loading the dishwasher. Being able to focus and complete tasks is important for your mental health, emotional satisfaction with yourself, and even your quality of life.
Being focused is not the same thing as being in a flow state. Focus is like a spotlight you shine on a task. A flow state is when all of your attention is concentrated on the task at hand, to the point that the world outside flows away. It’s also called “being in the zone” and is both highly desirable and highly elusive.
How cannabis can help with focus
Can cannabis really help you focus? After all, stoners aren’t exactly known for their lengthy attention span.
The short answer is maybe – it depends on several factors, including the cannabinoids and terpenes in your weed, as well as how much you consume. Some scientists believe cannabis can help some people “get into the zone” but can make others too relaxed to focus well.
It starts with the right cannabinoids. You don’t necessarily want a strain that is entirely CBD or THC, but ideally a combination of the two. THC can have different effects on cognition in different people, but most cannabis consumers know the feeling of getting so high that you end up falling asleep or spacing out – the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve when you want to focus. On the other hand, it’s hard to “feel” a dose of CBD in the same way, and many people are looking for the recognizable effect of THC. 1
You also need to find the right dose. CBD and THC both have biphasic effects, which means how they affect you in low doses is the opposite of how they can affect you in high doses. 2
What should you look for in a strain to help you focus, and maybe even spark a flow state? Everyone’s endocannabinoid system is different, but look for strains that:
- Have a balance of CBD and THC
- Reduce stress
- Provide a boost of energy
Cannabis, your brain, and focus
The frontal lobe of your brain is responsible for focusing your attention. On days when your attention is scattered, it can feel like your frontal lobe is working against you, bouncing you from idea to idea without rest. But this isn’t the only area of the brain affected by cannabis consumption.
A 2002 study found that cannabis increases blood flow to the frontal lobe of the brain. Researchers also found that cannabis consumption did not “significantly alter mean behavioral performance on the attention task” meaning cannabis consumption is not inherently distracting.
Cannabis also increases blood flow to the cingulate cortex, a part of your limbic system and the area of the brain responsible for behavior regulation. If you’ve ever consumed cannabis before a boring task like washing dishes or folding laundry, you’ve experienced the benefits of this. 3
Your frontal lobe and limbic system are crucial in idea formation, along with the temporal lobe. Increasing blood flow to these areas can help spark an idea (or several) that you’re able to dive into and focus on entirely. 4
Stress and focus
Stress can impact your ability to focus. It causes a rise in the levels of cortisol, a hormone produced in your adrenal glands which is crucial in regulating your body’s stress response. But increased cortisol levels can make it challenging to focus. CBD can reduce cortisol levels in the brain. 5
The reticular activating system (RAS) is a small part of the brain that helps you focus by processing information and stimuli at lightning speed. The RAS is a sensitive piece of equipment – when it’s under or overstimulated, focusing can be difficult. Increased stress will increase cortisol levels, which can quickly overstimulate the RAS, making it nearly impossible to concentrate. 6
A 2022 rodent study found that cannabis significantly “increased functional coupling” in the RAS of male mice (but not female mice, oddly enough). Another study from 2021 found that CBD affected areas of the brain connected to the RAS. 7 8
And while cannabis may be able to take the edge off this overstimulated RAS at the right dose, it’s important not to overshoot if you aim to achieve a flow state. Cutting the stress too far can actually lead to boredom with a task and prevent you from achieving optimal focus.
How to choose a cannabis strain for focus
Most cannabis products are advertised by the sativa or indica classification model, but this actually is not the best way to pick your strain. Indica and sativa are plant classifications, telling you more about the shape of the leaves and the height of the plant than the chemical makeup of its flowers. Strain names aren’t much help either, since there are no standard regulations as to what constitutes a certain strain. A better indicator of the right cannabis strain for you is by chemotype.
Chemotypes classify cannabis strains based on dominant cannabinoid. There are three primary chemotypes currently on the market.
- Type I – High THC. Low CBD
- Type II – balanced THC and CBD
- Type III – High CBD, low THC
Type II is usually the best type of cannabis to increase focus and potentially reach a flow state because the presence of CBD balances the heightening effects of THC. Type II strains can be challenging to find, so if you can’t find them, you can blend in some CBD flower with your Type I products.
Type I cannabis products are the most popular on the legal market, but they shouldn’t be your first choice for focus and reaching a flow state. It’s easy to overdo the amount of THC needed to help you focus, and instead get so high that you fall asleep or get completely distracted. THC can also increase anxiety in some people, which is the opposite of what helps you focus.
How you consume matters too. Oral delivery methods like tinctures and edibles have a longer effect time, while inhaled cannabis (like smoking or vaping) delivers results quickly, but also fades quickly.
Aside from cannabis, you’ll be able to focus more in the right environment – one free of distraction, other tasks, and even other people. Loud or crowded environments can be distracting, pulling your brain towards more urgent stimuli rather than staying on the task at hand.
And yes, there’s a lot of information on the internet purporting high-THC strains to help you focus, and for some people, a high dose of THC isn’t an impediment to focusing. But if you’re not a chronic user, consuming high amounts of THC can do more harm than help. After all, you’re not focused if you’re fighting a mid-afternoon post-toke nap.
Best terpenes for focus
- A 2005 study of terpenes found that pinene acts as an inhibitor of acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which may help to enhance energizing and focus effects. 9
- A 2018 study tested the effects of alpha and beta-pinene on men and women by measuring their brain waves with an EEG test. They found that men and women both responded to alpha-pinene with increased brain activity, however, women reacted more strongly than men to beta-pinene. 10
- Rodent studies have shown linalool has a positive effect on brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus and can improve cognitive behaviors, potentially increasing focus. 11
- Multiple clinical trials have shown that linalool in ylang ylang oil and lavender oil, which are both high in linalool “significantly increased calmness” which can help an overactive brain settle down and focus. Too much linalool can leave you feeling sleepy, but the right amount can help you find your flow. 1213
- Beta-caryophyllene has dose-dependent anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects, combatting stress in the brain. It also acts as a central nervous system depressant, which can slow down brain activity and keep you from feeling scatter-brained. 1415
Eucalyptol (a.k.a. 1,8–cineole)
- A 2020 human trial found that inhaled eucalyptol increases blood flow throughout the brain and stimulates the frontal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for focus. 16
It can be challenging to find the terpene profile of your cannabis on the legal market, let alone the legacy market. If you can’t get this information, you can always supplement your cannabis routine with essential oils that contain these terpenes. Tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil, for example, may both contain high levels of eucalyptol.
Best cannabis strains for focus
The best strains to improve creativity have a balance of CBD and THC with a terpene profile that includes pinene, linalool, and beta-caryophyllene. A few strains with this profile include Harlequin, ACDC, and Cannatonic.
These are just a few examples and don’t necessarily reflect the chemical markup of the strains bearing these names near you. Instead of looking for these exact varieties, ask to see the certificate of analysis when possible, to get a clear idea of the chemical makeup of your product. If you don’t have access to lab reports, smell the weed before you buy it.
- Kroon E., Kuhns L., Cousijn J.,The short-term and long-term effects of cannabis on cognition: recent advances in the field, Current Opinion in Psychology, V38, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.07.005.
- Rey AA, Purrio M, Viveros MP, Lutz B. Biphasic effects of cannabinoids in anxiety responses: CB1 and GABA(B) receptors in the balance of GABAergic and glutamatergic neurotransmission. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2012 Nov;37(12):2624-34. doi: 10.1038/npp.2012.123. Epub 2012 Aug 1. PMID: 22850737; PMCID: PMC3473327.
- O’Leary, D., Block, R., Koeppel, J. et al. Effects of Smoking Marijuana on Brain Perfusion and Cognition. Neuropsychopharmacol 26, 802–816 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0893-133X(01)00425-0
- Flaherty AW. Frontotemporal and dopaminergic control of idea generation and creative drive. J Comp Neurol. 2005 Dec 5;493(1):147-53. doi: 10.1002/cne.20768. PMID: 16254989; PMCID: PMC2571074.
- Appiah-Kusi, E., Petros, N., Wilson, R. et al. Effects of short-term cannabidiol treatment on response to social stress in subjects at clinical high risk of developing psychosis. Psychopharmacology 237, 1121–1130 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-019-05442-6
- Arguinchona JH, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, Reticular Activating System. [Updated 2021 Jul 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK549835/
- Coleman, JR, Madularu, D, Ortiz, RJ, et al. Changes in brain structure and function following chronic exposure to inhaled vaporised cannabis during periadolescence in female and male mice: A multimodal MRI study. Addiction Biology. 2022; 27 (3):e13169. doi:10.1111/adb.13169
- Sadaka, A.H., Ozuna, A.G., Ortiz, R.J. et al. Cannabidiol has a unique effect on global brain activity: a pharmacological, functional MRI study in awake mice. J Transl Med 19, 220 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12967-021-02891-6
- J. Agric. Food Chem. 2005, 53, 5, 1765–1768 Publication Date:February 11, 2005 https://doi.org/10.1021/jf040019b
- Kim M., Sowndhararajan K., Park S., Kim S.,Effect of inhalation of isomers, (+)-α-pinene and (+)-β-pinene on human electroencephalographic activity according to gender difference, European Journal of Integrative Medicine, V 17, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eujim.2017.11.005.
- Weston-Green K, Clunas H, Jimenez Naranjo C. A Review of the Potential Use of Pinene and Linalool as Terpene-Based Medicines for Brain Health: Discovering Novel Therapeutics in the Flavours and Fragrances of Cannabis. Front Psychiatry. 2021 Aug 26;12:583211. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.583211. PMID: 34512404; PMCID: PMC8426550.
- Moss M, Hewitt S, Moss L, Wesnes K. Modulation of cognitive performance and mood by aromas of peppermint and ylang-ylang. Int J Neurosci. 2008 Jan;118(1):59-77. doi: 10.1080/00207450601042094. PMID: 18041606.
- Araos, Danielle, A Heuristic Study on the Effects of Art Therapy and Essential Oil Diffuser for Treating Academic Stress and Test Anxiety 2019
- Hwang ES, Kim HB, Lee S, Kim MJ, Kim KJ, Han G, Han SY, Lee EA, Yoon JH, Kim DO, Maeng S, Park JH. Antidepressant-like effects of β-caryophyllene on restraint plus stress-induced depression. Behav Brain Res. 2020 Feb 17;380:112439. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2019.112439. Epub 2019 Dec 17. PMID: 31862467.
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