A while back a friend and I got into a bit of a debate about marijuana “tolerance breaks.” He and I are both heavy users who enjoy high-potency cannabis concentrates and he was advocating complete cold-turkey cessation for multiple days in order to reduce tolerance and more easily feel the effects. He insisted they were necessary while I balked at the notion that anyone would ever stop using cannabis for any reason.
My reaction was partially rooted in my long-time recreational cannabis use and love of civil disobedience. It was also due to my subjective experience as someone who likely suffers from something called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency.
The chemical compounds produced by cannabis that cause the “high,” (phytocannabinoids) actually mimic chemical compounds our bodies already produce, use and need to regulate essential functions. These are functions like pain, mood, digestion, appetite, inflammation and sleep. Some of these cannabinoids are already pretty well known — ∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), for example. Phytocannabinoids work on the same receptors and perform similar functions to endogenous cannabinoids (or cannabinoids that naturally exist in the human brain). For instance, THC works on the same receptors and performs similar functions to anandamide, which can be produced by rigorous exercise and is the compound responsible for the “runner’s high.”
So cannabinoid deficiency is real, meaning some people actually need to ingest cannabis to feel healthy. Although marijuana is not technically a vitamin, there could be enormous potential gained by even healthy people consuming small amounts of cannabis semi-regularly like a vitamin. On the other hand, it turns out too much of a good thing does come at a small cost to the person who uses too much.
I have the autoimmune disorder Crohn’s Disease. When I use cannabis, I am likely correcting my clinical endocannabinoid deficiency by supplementing with plant-sourced cannabinoids. Because cannabis is still federally illegal and doctors aren’t likely to discuss or even know how to tell someone like me the best dosage, strain and method of ingestion, most patients treat themselves and adjust based on the medicine’s availability and results. With no method to measure the endocannabinoid system’s function, it is impossible to determine the appropriate dosage and method of ingestion to treat any condition. It is all still trial and error.
For cannabis users not suffering from cannabinoid deficiency, regular heavy use will signal the body to stop producing endogenous cannabinoids since the system is being regulated by third-party phytocannabinoids.
Dr. Michelle Sexton, a naturopathic doctor and cannabis researcher, explained to Reset:
“High doses down regulate a system, so by taking high doses of THC — which binds very potently to the CB1 receptor — we could be down-regulating the endocannabinoid system.
She continued, “There may be conditions where you want to do that if the system is overactive, but for a normal, healthy person who has a normal endocannabinoid system, this chronic high-dose heavy-use is likely having a negative effect on their endocannabinoid system.”
So, as it turns out, my friend’s “tolerance break” suggestion makes some sense. While down regulation of the endocannabinoid system is hardly serious and is easily corrected, immediate cessation of cannabis use after periods of heavy use could make a person moody, sleepy or irritable. This has been classified as “marijuana withdrawal” in the DSM-V. Like other medicines, it is much more comfortable to taper off rather than completely discontinue use immediately.
Marijuana is not technically a vitamin. This is because vitamins are organic compounds and nutrients that human bodies need in order to function, but don’t already produce, so they must be obtained through diet. However, Sexton suggests that less-frequent low-dose cannabis use could stimulate the body to produce more endogenous cannabinoids on its own. She says further study is necessary to gain a better understanding of how cannabis and the cannabinoid system work. While there is a large and growing global body of research on cannabis and its medical effects, the Schedule I status of the herb as well as additional restrictions placed on its study effectively block most non-government research from taking place in the U.S.
“Cannabis isn’t always the answer and cure all for everything,” Sexton said. “If you want to use cannabis therapeutically, think about a whole approach, treating the whole person. As a culture, we have this tendency to want a quick fix. We need to treat the cause, not just medicate it away.”
Independent researchers looking to identify methods of up-regulating the endocannabinoid system, or encouraging the body to produce more endogenous cannabinoids, found in 2014 that lifestyle modifications such as healthy diet and exercise — as well as alternative therapies like acupuncture and herbal medicines like cannabis — will up regulate the endocannabinoid system. The review, published in the journal Plos One also found that some pharmaceutical drugs up-regulated the system, but are also known to cause serious side effects as compared with safe, alternative therapies.
So while marijuana isn’t a vitamin, using it like one for a healthy person — along with a healthy diet and exercise — may stimulate the body to produce more of its own endogenous cannabinoids. A growing movement of doctors and patients say they use it in this way.
“Cannabis is the key to unlocking preventative medicine,” said neuroscientist Dr. Michele Ross. “It protects your DNA from being damaged and slows down the aging process.”
Dr. Ross advocates for patients consuming small doses of full extract cannabis oil daily as a preventative measure. She says she uses a small amount every day like a vitamin both to treat her own PTSD and endometriosis, and for her overall health.
Dr. Amanda Reiman, lecturer at UC Berkeley and California policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance also says she uses marijuana like a vitamin to treat arthritis and other muscular-skeletal issues.
“I look at it like a vitamin or supplement. You don’t feel the effect of them immediately. It is more about long term wellness and prevention of disease,” Reiman says. “I would recommend that people look beyond the recreational, intoxicating side of cannabis to the prevention and wellness side.”
Much of the American public — nearly two-thirds — accept cannabis as a medicine and believes it should be legal. Cannabis is a medicine, an herb, a food, a drug and a kind of a vitamin, but it is definitely not a pharmaceutical. Could cannabis also be a vitamin? Sure, if you use the colloquial consumer definition of vitamins.
Angela Bacca is a Bay Area-based writer, journalist, photographer and medical cannabis patient. She has been working in cannabis media for seven years, starting with Ed Rosenthal’s Quick Trading Company, where she continues to collaborate on editorial projects. She is the former editor of Cannabis Now Magazine as well as the former managing editor of Ladybud Magazine. She currently freelances for a wide variety of cannabis media including Reset.me, Alternet.org and Cannabis Now Magazine. Bacca has a bachelor’s in journalism from San Francisco State University and a master’s in business administration from Mills College.