Tobacco usage has been prominent within western culture for more than four centuries. Nicotine does provide some short term benefits for the brain, including boosting one’s mood, reducing depression and irritability, enhancing concentration and short-term memory, reducing appetite, and producing a sensation of overall well-being.
In the modern day, it is clear that tobacco usage significantly contributes to heart disease, lung disease, strokes, weakened immunity, cancer, increased oxidative stress, and much more. Healthcare providers strongly encourage smokers to quit, as it is perhaps the single best action one can take to increase health and longevity.
However, quitting smoking is arguably one of the most challenging tasks a person can undertake. Social pressure, loss of relaxation, and withdrawal symptoms all make quitting difficult. Nicotine is highly addictive, on par with substances such as alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, and morphine / heroin. Withdrawal symptoms can begin as early thirty minutes after a person’s last tobacco usage.
Some of the withdrawal symptoms experienced are:
- intense cravings
- tingling sensations in the hands or feet
- abnormal sweating
- nausea or cramping of the abdomen
- sore throat or coughing fits
- irritability or anger
- increased weight gain
Understanding the mechanisms of addiction is imperative for finding ways to prevent or lessen withdrawal symptoms. A 2015 study by Muldoon, et al published in the British Journal of Pharmacology has discovered a novel approach to achieve just those goals. This discovery overlaps with current research into the endocannabinoid system and its many physiological effects. The following will briefly summarize the key findings of this landmark study.
These researchers wanted to better understand some of the mechanisms behind the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. This was done by exploring the effects of changing the activity of a particular enzyme that interacts with the system responsible for nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Within the body, there are receptors that become activated by certain molecules or compounds. The term that is often used to describe this process is a “lock and key,” where the specific receptor is referred to as the lock that can only be opened with the correct fitting key, which is the specific molecule or compound.
Cannabinoid receptors are a unique group of receptors within the body that interact with the endocannabinoid system. They also interact with the opioid system responsible for regulating our pain sensations, and interact with other systems that relate to behavior modification. The body is capable of producing two types of cannabinoids by itself, anandamide and 2-AG. These are the primary messenger molecules that interact with and activate this endocannabinoid system and its associated secondary networks.
The cannabis plant also produces cannabinoid molecules that are keys for the cannabinoid receptors.The cannabis plant produces several hundred different types of cannabinoids, but the two most widely studied are THC and CBD (cannabidiol).
Researchers in the 2004 study by Balerio, et al discovered that cannabinoid receptors were involved in the regulation of nicotine withdrawal symptoms and that THC was actually capable of reducing the intensity of tobacco withdrawal symptoms. Muldoon and colleagues wanted to expand on these findings by exploring the effects of 2-AG and how they compare to THC. They altered the concentration of 2-AG by either increasing or decreasing the activity of the enzyme that breaks it down. This resulted in higher concentrations of 2-AG when the enzyme was turned off, and lower concentrations when the enzyme was turned on.
Muldoon, et al noted immediate relief of symptoms of nicotine withdrawal in both mice and humans in the presence of increased 2-AG concentration. An even greater finding of this study was that sustained high levels of 2-AG over a six day period did not lead to the development of tolerance or a lower activation of cannabinoid receptors. This means that prolonged activation of cannabinoid receptors does not require ever increasing concentrations of 2-AG. This is a very significant finding and suggests that cannabinoid receptors do not develop a tolerance and require an increase in the dose over time, as is commonly seen in other medications. Furthermore, activation of cannabinoid receptors is the key in reducing the effects of nicotine withdrawal, whether it is done by increased concentrations of internal cannabinoids, such as 2-AG, or via external cannabinoids, such as CBD.
The major conclusions reached by Muldoon, et al in this study are the following:
- Increased concentrations of 2-AG activates cannabinoid receptors and GABA receptors to increase the production of dopamine and prevent symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.
- Increased concentrations of 2-AG additionally blocks the negative effects of withdrawal of THC and morphine via cannabinoid receptor activation.
- Increased levels of 2-AG increase cannabinoid receptor activation in both limbic and mesolimbic areas of the brain.
- Increased levels of 2-AG resulted in both anxiety relief and pain reduction via cannabinoid receptor activation.
- Prolonged activation of cannabinoid receptors in the presence of high levels of 2-AG does not result in tolerance or a reduction in therapeutic effectiveness.
- Activation of cannabinoid receptors is crucial for reducing the negative symptoms of nicotine withdrawal providing safe, effective, and long-term nicotine cessation with minimal to no side-effects.
This study clearly demonstrates that activation of cannabinoid receptors is a very effective method for reducing nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
While this study specifically looked at the effects of enzyme inhibition to increase the levels of 2-AG, it is highly plausible that activation of cannabinoid receptors alone is all that is necessary for the desired results. CBD is a well known, non-psychoactive cannabinoid found within the cannabis plant that has a strong affinity for cannabinoid receptors. The findings of this study help to explain its beneficial effects at alleviating the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, in addition to THC and morphine withdrawal symptoms. More studies should be done to explore this potential natural phytotherapy. However, given the fact that CBD is safe and well tolerated at doses up 1,500mg/day, it is well worth mentioning that self-experimentation with CBD could be highly valuable in achieving success in quitting tobacco. For more information on effective dose ranges of CBD for nicotine withdrawal, as well as other health conditions, feel free to read this article on CBD dosing, in addition to other articles on this site.