There’s plenty of evidence showing that cannabis can help with a variety of medical conditions. Like anything else you put in your body, however, it can have side effects. Sometimes those are the desired effect, other times can be negative, undesirable effects.
As with many things in life, moderation is key. One thing that makes cannabis so unique is its biphasic nature: Low and high doses can have opposite effects. Smoking a small amount of cannabis can be beneficial while consuming a larger amount can at times cause undesired side effects.
Unwanted side effects can vary in severity from mildly uncomfortable to rare instances that may require medical attention. In this article you’ll find a comprehensive list of these side effects along with tips on how to relieve each symptom — and prevent them as much as possible. Use it to make more informed decisions about your cannabis use, and don’t hesitate to contact your doctor if you have any questions as to how cannabis may affect you.
Mild Side Effects
These side effects are some of the most commonly reported among cannabis users and tend to be mild in terms of severity.
The most tell-tale sign that someone has recently consumed cannabis is the dreaded red/dry eyes. Cannabis can act as a natural vasodilator, reducing blood pressure by causing capillaries and blood vessels to dilate. This dilation increases blood flow to the area that causes redness.
Eye drops can be used to minimize discomfort or drying. You can also drink water to help restore moisture to the eyes. Vasoconstrictors — compounds that narrow vessels — may also help reduce eye redness.
Also known as “cottonmouth,” dry mouth occurs when cannabinoids bind to the submandibular glands in our mouths. This causes the glands to stop receiving messages from the parasympathetic nervous system instructing them to produce saliva, resulting in decreased saliva production.
There are many different ways you can treat dry mouth. You can drink more water, chew ice chips, gum, or even consume special lozenges designed to combat dry mouth. You should also avoid concurrent use of alcohol or tobacco as these can leave the mouth dry. Avoid drinks with high levels of tannins like wine or certain teas as these can also dry out the mouth.
Using a vape, as opposed to smoking cannabis, may also help reduce dry mouth.
One of the more widely depicted side effects of cannabis is “the munchies,” or a state of intense hunger. You can do a few things to combat the munchies:
Certain cannabinoids are thought to have appetite suppressing properties. One potential cannabinoid that may have such an effect is Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV). THCV can be found in higher levels in certain strains like Durban’s Poison.
CBD rich strains may also reduce appetite as CBD binds to the body’s CB1 receptors. These receptors are thought to modulate appetite and satiety. CBD and THCV act as antagonists at CB1, blocking further compounds from binding to the site. This could theoretically block the CB1 receptor’s ability to stimulate the appetite.
The temptation may be strong but salty and sugary foods can exacerbate the munchies instead of relieving them. “Sweet and salty foods and beverages are incredibly addictive,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD. “They trigger the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that motivates us to engage in rewarding behaviors.” As our tolerance to these types of foods builds with time, we’ll eventually need more food to satisfy the urge, creating an addiction.
In other words, eating sweet and salty foods feels so good that it’s inevitably going to trigger a cycle where you can’t help but crave more sugary and salty foods.
Slow Motor Skills & Reaction Times
Some users may experience impaired reaction times or drowsiness when consuming cannabis (which is why you should never smoke and drive). Reaction times are contingent on several factors.
One of these is an individual’s dopamine levels. Dopamine plays a crucial role in voluntary movement. Having too much or too little dopamine can cause cognitive impairments. This is thought to be one of the reasons why cannabis users can experience cognitive impairments like slowed reaction times. Exercise is one way you can get your body to produce more dopamine.
While sensitivity to cannabis can vary wildly among individuals, cognitive dysfunction is largely thought to be dose dependent. Research suggests “very heavy use” of cannabis is associated with a decline in cognitive performance. You can regulate this side effect by simply monitoring your dose — or even with microdosing (consuming very small quantities of cannabis over time).
Another commonly reported side effect with cannabis use is drowsiness. Users that experience drowsiness when medicating may want to look for an energetic sativa strain. ‘Energetic’ sativa strains like Blue Dream tend to be high in limonene and pinene.
You can also indulge with a short power nap. Those who can’t nap can always consume some caffeine to counter any drowsiness.
Short-term/spatial memory issues
Contrary to popular belief a single dose of (Delta 9) THC “is unlikely to have persistent effects on memory function.” One team of researchers found administering THC impaired episodic memory and verbal recall for two hours after oral administration. No residual effects were present 24 or 48 hours later.
CBD, however, may help protect any short term memory deficits caused by THC. As such, it may help reverse any negative cognitive effects on memory. Other individuals may experience a relief of unwanted symptoms following a period of cannabinoid abstinence.
Patients can also try consuming cannabinoids with neuroprotectant properties like CBG (Cannabigerol) to minimize oxidative stress and damage in the brain. Certain classes of adaptogenic herbs may also be utilized for this purpose.
Serious side effects
The following side effects can range from mildly uncomfortable to those warranting serious medical attention. While the latter is fairly rare, you should always exercise caution when consuming cannabis.
Paranoia and anxiety are two typical hallmarks of negative cannabis side effects. These symptoms can be mild for some or more drastic in the case of vulnerable populations, like those with certain mental health disorders.
Luckily there are many things you can do to counter paranoia and anxiety. These include:
- Avoid concurrent use with stimulants (alcohol, caffeine, nicotine) as these can exacerbate the negative side effects of cannabis in a number of ways. Small amounts of alcohol, for instance, can significantly increase the amount of THC in the blood.
- Choose strains that are CBD-rich or have complimentary terpene profiles (i.e. high in linalool). You can also opt to consume products that contain Delta 8 THC instead of the traditional, more psychoactive Delta 9 THC. Brands like Oregrown and Marley’s Naturals both have Delta 8-rich vape cartridges available.
- Consume CBD, as it can potentially reduce the negative effects of THC. A few of the most fast-acting ways to consume CBD include using CBD vaporizers, consuming CBD concentrates, or even using a CBD tincture sublingually.
- Exercise! You might find that taking a walk helps. Others find yoga to be especially calming. Dance is also another option. You can also opt for a cold shower. Pick a physical activity and get to it.
- Many people report that chewing on black peppercorns can reduce anxious feelings associated with being too high. This is because black peppercorns contain the terpene Myrcene which is known for its calming, sedative properties. You can also try making fresh lemonade as citrus and the terpene limonene is thought to exhibit similar effects.
- Just breathe. You can employ a variety of deep breathing exercises (“diaphragmatic breathing”) to help ease the discomfort of racing or anxious thoughts.
- Try listening to uplifting or calming music.
Increased Heart Rate (Tachycardia)
Some cannabis users may also experience an increased or irregular heart rate (tachycardia) due to the bi-phasic properties of cannabis. Low doses of cannabis, for instance, result in increased activity of your sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “fight or flight” response. This can then produce tachycardia.
Onset of this condition can begin within a few minutes of inhaled cannabis, peaking at the 30 minute mark. Effects can persist for 90 minute or longer. You can minimize your risk of tachycardia by avoiding the use of caffeine with cannabis.
The first thing to do when experiencing tachycardia is to take a deep breath. Remember that cannabis is safe to use and there have never been any reported deaths solely attributed to cannabis use.
You can employ a variety of techniques for treating tachycardia. These include using CBD (vape or concentrate), using diaphragmatic breathing techniques, yoga, or a cold shower. Vigorous exercise may also help.
Extreme cases may require specialized care. This can include antiarrhythmic drugs administered intravenously at a hospital.
The most extreme negative side effect that can come with cannabis use is induced psychosis, or the manifestation of psychotic like symptoms.
If you have experienced psychotic symptoms in the past, it is absolutely necessary to speak with a doctor, preferably a psychiatrist with experience recommending cannabis before even trying cannabis.
You can mitigate your odds of induced psychosis by opting for cannabis strains high in CBD, CBG or CBN.
If you experience psychotic like symptoms, you can attempt to alleviate them by administering CBD (vaporizer, inhaler or concentrate). If you’re with someone else, you can ask them to assess the situation (and to accompany you if you do go to hospital). In all likelihood, a visit to the ER will mean being put in a safe space until the intoxicating effects wears off and you feel better, and possibly being given medications like benzodiazepines, antipsychotics (Haloperidol), anxiolytic drugs (Valium) or sedatives like Lorazepam.
Preventing Cannabis Side Effects
You can minimize the potential negative side effects of cannabis with a little planning. Consider the following when determining what consumption method is right for you.
What condition are you looking to relieve? Some cannabis strains work better than others, which is why it’s a good idea to tailor your strain to your ailment.
Indica and sativa are two different phenotypes (physical expressions) of the cannabis plant. The experiences you’re likely to have with each depend on a wide variety of factors such as your age, weight, or metabolism. Since these experiences are largely subjective, it’s difficult to say with certainty how each type of cannabis may affect you. You can, however, consider common experiences of users to help choose a strain.
Indicas, for instance, are often used by patients with sleep disorders. Sativas, on the other hand, tend to be more energetic. Hybrids, as their name suggests, are a mix of the two.
Some people are especially sensitive to the potentially “racy” cerebral stimulation that’s characteristic of sativas, and may want to opt for an indica strain instead.
Cannabinoid and terpene content
The best way to determine if a strain is right for you is to examine its cannabinoid and terpene content. You can find this information in a Certificate of Analysis — an analysis, generally conducted by a third party lab, that breaks down what’s in your cannabis.
Certain cannabinoids are better suited for specific conditions. The compound Delta 8 THC, for instance, is generally thought to be more “therapeutic” as it’s less psychoactive than your standard Delta 9 THC. Learning more about each cannabinoid’s unique properties can help you determine the ideal strain for you.
This also applies for terpene content. You can minimize your odds of negative side effects like anxiety or paranoia by looking for strains that are high in certain terpenes. The terpene linalool, for instance, is known for its calming, anti-anxiety effects. Here are some popular strains high in linalool.
Delivery (Consumption Method)
Certain consumption methods are more preferable than others. Edibles, for instance, may take up to two hours to kick in but can last for up to eight hours. Vaping cannabis is nearly instantaneous, but the effects are more transient, lasting two-to-three hours.
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Users with a low tolerance to cannabis may want to avoid delivery methods like consuming edibles or concentrates as they may deliver THC for a longer period of time and have been associated with more ER visits.