Cannabis has long been considered to be an addictive substance, which is of course why it’s listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic in the United States. However in recent years, an increasing number of studies have been published in the medical community indicating that the cannabis plant itself (or some of its extracts), could potentially help in treating addictions. In fact, cannabis is believed to be much less addictive than many other illicit and legal substances.
According to a report published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2015, nicotine can often be as addictive as cocaine or heroin. Nicotine stimulates the release of dopamine, which is a powerful neurotransmitter that is found in the pleasure circuit of the brain. Just like any other drug, once a person is addicted to nicotine, their brain will continually crave the nicotine so that more dopamine will be released and give off those intensely pleasurable sensations again.
The same report mentioned above goes on to state that around 35 million people know that smoking is bad for their health, and would like to break their nicotine habit. However, more than 85% of those who try to quit using tobacco products end up having a relapse, often within the first week when withdrawal symptoms are the most severe.
With that in mind, could CBD be the answer to breaking the nicotine addiction, and help quit smoking once and for all? Let’s have a closer look below.
How does addiction work?
To understand how CBD may help to treat a smoking addiction, we first need to understand the science behind addiction and addictive behavior.
The human brain is made up of a reward system that’s based on dopamine, which is a very powerful chemical that can create cravings in the brain. These cravings were originally designed to help us survive, and they include cravings for sex, food, and social interaction. If we give in to these cravings, we experience sensations of pleasure.
Dopamine is formed at the top of the brainstem, and cravings are first triggered when the dopamine starts to flow through the complex pathway that connects the various areas of the brain. Dopamine first travels from the brainstem to the dorsal striatum, where the neurons in the brain identify rewarding experiences such as drinking, smoking, eating, or having sex, and then start developing habits out of them.
Many things can cause addiction: drugs, smoking, sex, gambling, alcohol, etc. Most of these substances or activities increase the flow of dopamine through the brain, which results in a “rewiring” of the brain circuit and may cause addiction in vulnerable people.
How substances or behaviors interact with the dopamine reward system in our brain varies greatly from individual to individual. Nicotine, for example, temporarily stimulates dopamine production, which increases feelings of pleasure after smoking. On the other hand, cocaine blocks the dopamine transporters and temporarily halts the removal of excess dopamine in the brain.
How does CBD work?
CBD works with several systems in our body, functioning primarily through our endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a big regulatory system that is comprised of many receptors found throughout the body. It plays a large role in regulating many physiological processes, including mood, pain sensation, memory, and appetite. It is also known to regulate all physiological systems in our body, including the digestive system, endocrine system, nervous system, reproductive system, immune system, and muscular system.
CBD primarily works with two receptors; CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are mostly found in the brain and nervous system, while CB2 receptors can be found in the immune system and throughout the body’s various cell and tissue types. Both of these receptors can either be activated by the body’s naturally occurring cannabinoids, or by plant-based cannabinoids like CBD and THC.
The difference is that while THC directly binds to the receptors, CBD does not. Rather, it encourages the naturally occurring cannabinoids in the body to activate the receptors, which causes them to “do more” than what they normally would.
The reason that CBD doesn’t cause any psychoactive effects is that it doesn’t bind to the receptors. This is the main reason that many people are starting to opt for CBD rather than THC when it comes to medicinal purposes, although the health benefits are similar. Interesting to note, however, is that CBD could offset the negative side effects of THC.
What science says about CBD for quitting smoking
There is a strong backing of research which shows that CBD has the potential to help people to curb an array of addictions, including smoking. For example, a 2013 study that was published in Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behaviour found that CBD could help to manage alcoholism.
Another research study published on addictive behaviors in 2013 and led by Dr. CJ. Morgan, found that CBD could help reduce tobacco addiction. The study was focused around 24 smokers who were looking to quit; each of the smokers was chosen at random to receive either a CBD inhaler or a placebo for a week, and they were told to use the inhaler every time they felt the urge to smoke a cigarette.
The results found that those who received a placebo inhaler showed no difference in the amount of tobacco that they consumed. However, those who received the CBD inhaler showed a great decrease in the amount of nicotine that they smoked.
By all accounts, researchers concluded that CBD was a promising treatment option for tobacco addiction. Dr. CJ Morgan believed that the incredible result they got could have something to do with how CBD alters the memories that are associated with smoking; typically, when a person has the urge to smoke, (i.e. after smelling or seeing someone else smoke or during a stressful time), they have a vivid memory of how good it feels to stimulate that dopamine-induced pleasure portion of the brain. The memory is so intense that the craving for nicotine becomes so strong that it is near impossible to ignore or overcome.
To fully understand how CBD works to combat smoking, we need to discuss memory consolidation. When memories are first formed, they are stored in our short-term memory. Gradually, some of our short-term memories will move into our long-term memory. This causes a “memory trace” to be left behind. CBD is thought to make a memory trace more flexible when a memory is recalled. This is what allows the user to either get rid of the memory or modify that memory. This is sometimes known as reconsolidating a memory.
Drugs that cause amnesia (amnestic drugs) are sometimes prescribed for drug addicts who are attempting to quit their drug habit. The idea is that when the intense craving for the drug kicks in, and the memory trace becomes flexible, the amnestic drug will erase their memory of how pleasurable it was to take the drug and will either make the next cravings less intense or erase them completely. It seems that CBD could have this same effect on cigarette smokers.
Alternatively, CBD might allow the user to modify the memory enough so that instead of only remembering the pleasure associated with smoking, they also remember the negatives about smoking and the fact that it’s bad for them. The idea here is that the next time they start to crave nicotine, the memory of smoking is not all that positive.
Can CBD help you stop smoking? Other studies to look at
In another study, researchers at the Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit of University College London wanted to look at whether CBD could help smokers to quit smoking by stopping intrusive thoughts. The team of researchers took a look at smokers who had stopped consuming any nicotine overnight. As part of the study, a dose of 800-milligrams of CBD was given to some of the participants, while others were given a placebo.
Researchers found that those who were given the placebo had a stronger response to photos that were related to smoking than those who were given the CBD. Ultimately they determined that those who used CBD had fewer intrusive thoughts about smoking, and thus had a better chance at kicking the habit. However, it is important to note that researchers found that a single dose of CBD didn’t help with nicotine craving, and withdrawal symptoms which is often what keeps people hooked.
In reality, quitting smoking is more than just overcoming a physical addiction. It’s the process of breaking a habit, which is difficult and stress-inducing. Consuming CBD could relieve anxiety, as well as fulfill a missing habit. The idea of smoking CBD is that the actual inhalation of a substance can relax you in the same way that smoking nicotine does.
Final thoughts on CBD to help quit smoking
The main reason that CBD has shown to have potential when it comes to nicotine addiction and giving up smoking is in the way that it affects memory. By helping to eliminate the positive memories that most smokers associate with their tobacco habit, CBD could assist those who are trying to quit.
Overall, the evidence of CBD helping in the treatment of nicotine addiction is extremely positive. The way that CBD affects the memory and the ability it has to act in a neuroprotective manner, means that those suffering from a nicotine addiction could find great benefit in using CBD.