Surprising Research on Cannabis

Photo by Rick Proctor on Unsplash

Photo by Rick Proctor on Unsplash

Much of what we think we know about cannabis may soon change as a result of new research that uncovers some surprising facts. Indeed, the topic, which can be emotionally charged, is the focus of intense scientific study. Is cannabis good for you? Is it addictive? What long-term harms can use cause? The answers to these questions are multi-layered and not always clear-cut, which is why cannabis research continues with even more urgency.


Current estimates are that one in 10 cannabis users will develop cannabis addiction or dependence. The potency of the delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive constituent in marijuana, in today’s cannabis is much higher than in years past. Besides traditional marijuana use, designer drugs created from synthetic cannabinoids are growing in popularity – along with increased concern for their unknown addiction potential and negative health effects. According to a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction, at least 169 different synthetic cannabinoid compounds have been discovered since detection of the market’s first synthetic cannabinoid in 2008.

Using gene-based testing, four genes have been identified that are significantly associated with lifetime cannabis use:

  • Neural cell adhesion molecule 1 (NCAM1) – which is also associated with substance abuse
  • Cell adhesion molecule 2 (CADM2)
  • Potassium sodium-activated channel subfamily T member 2 (KCNT2)
  • Short coiled-coil protein (SCOC)

While vulnerability to starting cannabis use and developing cannabis use disorder (CUD) is heritable, other risk factors are believed to speed the transition. These risk factors include:

  • Age of first use of cannabis
  • Drug use by peers
  • Availability of drugs
  • Lower socioeconomic status
  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Early adolescent smoking and/or drinking
  • Presence of pre- or comorbid psychiatric conditions — including mood disorders, psychosis, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Other studies found certain biological and personality traits – such as impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and schizotypy – are positively correlated with youths and young adults initiating cannabis use.


Comprehensive research published in Frontiers in Behavioral Science outlines some fascinating details of the differences between men and women when it comes to the effect of cannabis. The bottom line is that women are more likely to become addicted to cannabis than men. In addition to genetic background and fluctuations in hormones, here are some of the study’s findings, using animal models:

  • Men are four times more likely than women to try cannabis.
  • Men are also more likely to use cannabis more frequently than their female counterparts.

The male sex steroids (including natural sex steroid testosterone and synthetic steroids such as nandrolone) increase risk-taking and suppress the reward system in the brain. This could explain why men are more willing to experiment with drugs, including cannabis.

Women, on the other hand, seem to be more vulnerable to developing an addiction to cannabis, at least on a neurochemical level. To put it plainly, females can transition from first use to habit more rapidly than men. The rodent studies showed researchers that the female hormone estradiol affects three targets of drug-taking: control of movement, filtering of sensory input to the brain, and social behavior. This occurs through modulation of the endocannabinoid system which, in turn, influences the production of estradiol.

In addition to different levels of endocannabinoids, female rats have more sensitive receptors than males in the specific brain areas related to the three drug-taking targets – plus, significant changes along the female rats’ menstrual cycle.

Researchers noted that the result is that “the interactions between the endocannabinoid system and brain level of dopamine – the neurotransmitter of ‘pleasure’ and ‘reward’ – are sex-dependent.”

They suggest that gaining a deeper understanding of how cannabinoids and sex steroids interact is both crucial to assess the effect of increasing cannabis use and to effectively deal with the results. For example, cannabis addiction detoxification treatments and relapse prevention may be gender-tailored for better effectiveness. Still, much further research needs to be done to make evidence-based progress in this area.


For the millions of Americans suffering with chronic pain, there’s promising research that shows that pinpointing an effective dose of cannabidiol (CBD), an extract from the marijuana plant can provide safe relief from chronic pain minus the adverse effects of THC from marijuana. Researchers from Canada’s McGill University Health Centre, using animal models and administering low doses of CBD over a period of seven days reduced both pain and anxiety – two symptoms commonly associated with chronic or neuropathic pain. The researchers say this is encouraging evidence for the use of CBD over THC or opioids for pain management in conditions that include sciatica, diabetic cancer, back pain, chronic pain and pain that occurs post-trauma. CBD became legal in Canada in mid-October 2018, following passage of the country’s Cannabis Act. More robust clinical trials are needed, say researchers, for the kind of evidence-based proof of CBD’s effectiveness and safety to provide pain relief for humans.

In another study published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers from Syracuse University found that cannabinoid drugs do not reduce the intensity of chronic pain, but they do perhaps make the pain feel more tolerable and less unpleasant. Even though 30 states allow medical marijuana use, cannabis is still a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance as classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). This presents significant challenges for research into the therapeutic effects of cannabis. As a result, there is a lack of high-quality evidence supporting the effectiveness of cannabis in treating chronic pain.


In the largest known imaging study of the brain, researchers affiliated with several California institutions, including Amen Clinics, Inc., Google, Inc., UCLA Medical Center, UCSF Medical Center, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, found that cannabis use is one of the drivers of accelerated brain aging. Using brain SPECT (single photon emission computer tomography) to evaluate 30,000 scans from individuals ranging in age from 9 months to 105 years, researchers say they can now track common disorders and behaviors that prematurely age the brain. Schizophrenia, for example, contributed to an average 4 year early brain aging, while cannabis abuse accelerated brain aging by 2.8 years. Other disorders found to amp up brain aging were bipolar disorder (1.6 years), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (1.4 years), and alcohol abuse (0.6 years). Researchers pointed out that the results of this study should give everyone pause, especially considering the current cultural perception that cannabis use is innocuous. They added that better treatment of these disorders could slow or even halt the brain aging process.


The most prevalent detected intoxicant in drivers in the United States isn’t alcohol, it’s THC. Approximately 13 percent of drivers tested positive for marijuana, compared with about 8 percent for measurable amounts of alcohol. Despite findings that cannabis intoxication (stoned driving) while driving impairs reaction time and visual-spatial judgement, a plurality of cannabis users believe that cannabis has no effect or decreases crash risk, while only 38 percent think that driving under the influence of cannabis increases crash risk. This underestimation of risks of cannabis intoxication plus current cannabis consumption trends suggest cannabis-impaired driving may significantly contribute to highway injury and death. Alcohol and other drugs combined with cannabis use may “more than additively” increase highway risk.


Research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that adolescent cannabis use is associated with concurrent and lagged effect on cognitive functioning, such as working memory, memory recall, perceptual reasoning, and inhibitory control. The lasting effects of cannabis use on inhibitory control is particularly concerning, since inhibitory control is a risk factor for other addictive behaviors. Early onset of cannabis use during adolescence results in even more pronounced cognitive and behavioral effects. Researchers highlighted the importance of protecting youth from the adverse consequences of cannabis consumption through more investment in drug-prevention programs.


Research published in the European Journal of Cardiology has found a three-fold increased risk of death from hypertension due to cannabis use. Compared to non-users, marijuana users had a risk of hypertension death that was 3.42 times higher – and an additional 1.04 greater risk for each year of cannabis use. Researchers pointed out that this finding is not surprising, considering that marijuana use is known to have multiple effects on the cardiovascular system, including increases in heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen demand. Cases of heart attack and angina have been reported in hospital emergency departments after cannabis use. They cautioned that the cardiovascular risk associated with marijuana use may be even greater than the risk already established for cigarette smoking.

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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Limiting Time on Social Media Increases Well-Being

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

“Today, spend a little time cultivating relationships offline. Never forget that everybody isn’t on social media.” – Germany Kent


If you are among those who anxiously check the posts of your social media contacts because you obsessively have to know what’s going on in their world and can’t seem to curb your urge to remain riveted to your feed, new research on the negative effect of too much social media on well-being is worth reviewing.

I recently spoke with Melissa G. Hunt, one of the authors of “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression,” published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

Hunt and her research colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, in a 2018 study, alleged there is a causal link between usage of social media and loneliness and depression. They say that spending inordinate amounts of time on popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat does more than connect users to their contacts. It’s also making them decidedly more miserable, promoting greater feelings of loneliness and depression.

During the period of the study, participants in the research significantly reduced their time on social media for about three weeks. The result was they reported reduced feelings of loneliness and depression.

Researchers said that the fear of missing out (FOMO) is what drives people to obsess over social media, spending extraordinary amounts of time in this sedentary activity. They strongly recommend limiting screen time to about 30 minutes a day, saying that this simple self-limiting measure may lead to “significant improvement in well-being.”

Why do people use social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, if it makes them feel lonelier and more depressed?

MGH: Social media companies hire experts whose job is to make the sites as appealing and addictive as possible.  For example, they use algorithms to ensure that you are getting “new” information, and “likes” on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule.  That is, things appear at intervals to reward you for logging on and spending time.

Social media also gives the appearance of engagement and intimacy and sites like Instagram promise to keep you up to speed on the latest trends.  Women have been reading “women’s” magazines for decades, and we know that reading them decreases self-esteem and increases body image concerns and self-loathing.  Certain types of social media are no different.

What do you say to those who complain that social media is essential in today’s world, that they can’t live without it? Isn’t this an impossible recommendation, suggesting people limit their time? Or, can they get the benefit of social media with less screen time?

MGH: It might be unrealistic to suggest foregoing social media completely (although I do).  That’s why we didn’t require that.  We just asked people to limit themselves to 30 minutes per day.  That’s more than enough time to catch up with friends, find out when your study group is meeting, and like your cousin’s cute kid picture.  It prevents going down the “rabbit hole” of clicking randomly, following celebrities, or cyber stalking your ex’s new flame.

How do you wean yourself off social media? Any quick tips?

MGH: Self-monitoring seems to help.  Although we didn’t study them, apps that increase your awareness of how much you’re using (like In Moment and Space) may well help people become more mindful and self-aware.

Do you know of other studies that document how social media fuels loneliness and depression?

MGH: There are many correlational studies out there that establish the association, and a number that suggest that social media fosters social comparison that makes you feel bad about your own life, and FOMO that makes you aware of all the things you weren’t invited to and weren’t included in.

I think that social media tends to foster inauthentic connection.  True intimacy involves sharing both life’s highlights and the terrible times.  Things you’re proud of, and things you’re sad or anxious or embarrassed about.  Social media tends to reward only the highlights, and that doesn’t lead to true intimacy or social support.

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It’s not all dire. You don’t have to completely withdraw from social media. Indeed, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Hunt, you can reap the benefits of moderate limitations on your social media consumption. The next and most obvious question is, how do you limit social media time? Here are some suggestions.

Get an app for that.

Apple, the maker of perhaps the most popular smartphone in the world, recently made an update available that helps its users set limits on certain apps they use and track those that take up so much of their time. The update section this pertains to is called Screen Time.

Meanwhile, there are several apps that allow users to limit how much time they’re using their phones. These, of course, vary in terms of how intensely you limit phone time.

Yet another potential help for limiting social media time is the use of browser extensions such as StayFocusd, available through the Chrome web store. The idea is that users are allowed a certain amount of time on the website and then the screen is locked – and there’s no way back in. Check out the so-called “nuclear option” that prevents users from going into a specific website altogether. Now, that is a bit extreme, but it is out there.

Exert self-discipline.

Not everyone is blessed with the ability to not only set limits on how much social media time they’ll engage in, but actually follow through with the discipline it takes to do so effectively. Think of all the other things you could be doing instead of frittering away hours poring over likes, comments, postings and the like. Maybe enlist a trusted friend, a loved one or family member to get you out of the house and doing something in real time, with live people (not digital connections). What a concept!

Disable (temporarily) all social media notifications.

Another helpful way to curb your constant social media obsession (if not quite social media addiction) is to turn off or disable the notifications from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media time-wasting sites. No more suffering through the anxiety-provoking habit of having to instantly reply to every notification. This doesn’t have to be a permanent deletion, just a temporary pause to allow you to get back in the realm of living in the present and interacting with real people.

Go colorless.

In the world of social media, just as in any websites, advertising, TV programs and other forms of media that grab attention, color is king. The brighter the color, the more enticing, right? As an experiment to see if this can help you ratchet down your social media consumption, use grayscale to make the sites less attractive. When everything is in shades of gray, it’s easier to forego the temptation to linger there. On iPhones, hit settings, general, accessibility, display accommodations, color filters (turn this on), and then grayscale. That’s it, you’ve made your screen colorless.

Get rid of your phone – or leave it home.

A bit more extreme is the suggestion you ditch your phone completely. Like that would ever happen in today’s always-on society. You could try leaving it at home while you go out for a walk. That would give you a social-media breather at least. It might even persuade you that you don’t need to be tethered to your phone. After all, you’re not really missing out on anything. All that social media interaction will still be there after you return from a well-deserved (and much-needed) break.

Make it a point to be with people who appreciate you for who you are.

Nobody’s perfect. Each of us has flaws and traits we’d like to minimize, as well as talents we wish we had or accomplishments we’d love to broadcast. The problem with too much time wasted on social media is that everybody else looks better than we do. That’s not reality and it certainly does nothing for our self-esteem. A proven remedy to increase well-being is also one of the easiest to implement: Spend time with those who appreciate you for who you are. Laugh together. Share a meal. Go to a movie. Garden, spend time in nature, take in a concert, do various types of activities together. In fact, once you resurrect the in-person kind of communication, you’ll find that digital connections are a pale and distant substitute.

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A version of this article was originally published on Psych Central. However, the interview with Melissa G. Hunt is new.

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How to Remain Focused in an Increasingly Distracting World

How to Remain Focused in an Increasingly Distracting World

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

“One way to boost our will power and focus is to manage our distractions instead of letting them manage us.” – William Goleman


I know I’m not alone in being easily distracted. In fact, with the proliferation of smartphones, smart TVs and other home devices, I’d venture a guess that all this burgeoning availability and use of technology contributes to societal distraction, not the opposite. Indeed, it’s so easy to succumb to the siren call of an incoming tweet or message, to pore through social media for hours to see what’s happening, to feel included, in the know, popular and liked that zeroing in on tasks at hand or what’s really important today can get lost in the competition for our attention.

After missing a few deadlines and failing to accomplish more than one pressing task, I embarked on a mission to teach myself how to remain focused – despite the lure of incessant distractions around me. Maybe some of the tips I’ve discovered that worked for me will help you find focus as well.

Take a personal time-out.

No, this isn’t a recommendation to go sit in a corner as punishment for bad behavior. On the contrary, when you opt for a personal time-out, what you’re doing is opening space to clear your mind and allow focus to return. I find that taking my time-out is most useful when I can feel my heart rate increase, my breath becomes shallower, and I sense the pressure of not enough time to get something done. In fact, it’s at these times that taking a pause is the best way to address digital distraction overload – literally.

During a personal time-out, it’s important to do nothing. That means no multi-tasking jotting notes, listening to TV news, reading emails, posting on social media, doing laundry or whatever. Put aside everything else and be in a quiet place where you can let your mind go blank. I like meditation, although yoga is also a great practice to utilize. As difficult as this may be for always-on-the-go and ever-connected individuals, stopping the whirlwind distractions for a short time is the only way to calm the noise and regain balance, equilibrium and sense of well-being. Trust me, after some trial-and-error, you’ll find this technique works. When you return to your day, you’ll likely be better rested and even find solutions or answers to problems or questions pop into your head without effort – almost as if they only needed the space to come out and be noticed.

Learn self-discipline.

Discipline often gets a bad rap, associated for years with punishment doled out by parents, educators, law enforcement, the court system and others. Yet, discipline is an integral part of learning, self-growth and success. Without discipline, no one would ever learn the multiplication tables or why you shouldn’t bang your sister over the head when she snatches your toys. The discipline to continue higher education by taking a series of ever-more complex and difficult courses is required to achieve a desired degree. It’s much the same way when it comes to self-discipline and how that can help you regain focus in today’s distracting and distracted world.

How does self-discipline in this context work? Take losing yourself in social media for hours as an example of distraction that erodes focus. Using self-discipline as a technique here means setting and adhering to limits on time spent with this activity. It must be something meaningful and workable in order to work, however, or you won’t wind up benefitting. If you say you’ll only devote one hour per day to social media, and it will be late afternoon once you’ve finished work, reward yourself with unfettered access to your social media for that allocated hour. Do not allow yourself to be tempted to sneak in a few furtive peeks when you’re supposed to be engaged in other tasks – like work, school, tending to the kids.

Now, the fact that research shows that teens spend up to nine hours per day using social media platforms and adults devote 4.7 hours per day on smartphone and other connected devices only shows how formidable the pressure of nonstop distractions is. Combatting this obsession will require cultivating some measure of self-discipline. The ultimate reward, though, when you exercise self-discipline to be gadget-free will be your ability to focus and remain focused when you need to.

Reap the benefits of family face-to-face communication and interaction.

The joke about family disconnection that’s not funny is played out daily in homes throughout the country. Mother, father and kids are at the dinner table and everyone’s on their smartphone. Communication between family members is often via text – while in the same room, ostensibly sharing a meal! Talk about lost opportunity for family bonding, parents and children sharing their day’s experiences.

Where all this broke down is anyone’s guess, but it likely had much to do with the proliferation of smartphones and the skyrocketing popularity of social media. Instead of face-to-face dialogue, where differences can be ironed out in real-time and by using visual and auditory clues, emojis and abbreviated language and shortcuts sabotage genuine conversation for a quick exchange, albeit less satisfying.

Granted, kids may not want to look their parents in the eye when they’ve gotten a bad report card, got caught speeding, or mom and dad are likely to grill them on their friends, who’s going to chaperone the party they want to attend and so on. For their part, parents may much rather issue vague generalities or denials of anything wrong than let on to the kids. Hiding from the truth, however, in this form as well as others, does nothing to confront and solve problems. Least of all, it aids and abets resorting to distractions as a coping mechanism.

How about instilling a family rule that says there’s no use of technology at the dinner table? Be prepared for intense opposition, even for yourself, as curbing the use of smartphones and such won’t be easy. Tell yourself that the benefits of seeing and hearing what’s really going on instead of getting it third-hand will be more than worth the temporary separation from the distraction of tech devices. After all, for many families, mealtime is the only block of time they share. Make it free of distracting interruptions. Make this family time count by focusing on what’s real and happening now.


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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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