The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says that it can take between eight and 11 attempts for someone to permanently quit smoking. It’s a long tough road for many (if not most) people. If you’re a smoker, you know this. But believe it or not, cannabis may be able to help you quit smoking.
Quitting smoking is tough. Though there’s a long list of smoking cessation aids on the market and in the pharmacy, smokers still struggle with nicotine cravings. This is especially true when they come up against cues for smoking, like being at a party, drinking certain beverages or visiting a particular place.
Now, however, smokers who want to quit may have an ally in cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabis compound. CBD appears to reduce smokers’ responses to triggering cues. The cannabinoid also appears to rewire the brain’s pathways for pleasure, reward and memory.
Along with psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD is one of the most abundant compounds in the cannabis plant. And a number of studies have revealed its many benefits for the following:
- Reducing inflammation
- Easing pain
- Protecting the body’s nerves and tissues from infection and cellular damage
CBD has also been studied for its ability to disrupt addictions to substances including street drugs and a variety of pharmaceuticals, including the powerfully addictive painkillers, opioids.
So how can CBD help cigarette smokers stamp out their habit? Read on to learn more.
How Cannabis May Be Able to Help You Quit Smoking
For a long time, little research had been done on whether CBD can also disrupt nicotine addiction and help people quit smoking. But a study published in 2018 in the journal Addiction provided some key insights into the role of CBD in helping smokers to quit, and why CBD could be a useful addition to the many smoking cessation tools.
In that study, researchers asked a group of smokers to inhale a formulation of CBD oil whenever they felt the urge to smoke. Meanwhile, another group of study participants used a placebo in the same way. After one week, the group of CBD consumers had cut their cigarette consumption by 40% in comparison to the placebo group. But what interested researchers most was the reason for CBD’s dramatic effect on the smokers’ behaviors.
Nicotine Hijacks the Brain’s Pleasure-Reward-Memory Circuit
The study found that overall, CBD didn’t affect nicotine withdrawal symptoms. And while it didn’t completely stop cravings for cigarettes either, it did affect the smokers’ responses to cues about smoking. One factor that contributes to addiction in general is that using an addictive substance, such as nicotine, releases a flood of the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine.
This pleasure-reward pathway in the brain is then activated whenever a person uses the substance again. And over time, that substance hijacks the brain’s normal production of serotonin and dopamine, and the brain stops producing them on its own without the presence of the addictive substance. This process is called reconsolidation. And for smokers, this means that when they’re under stress of any kind, the craving for nicotine becomes intense in order to release the brain’s comfort chemicals.
But the pleasure-reward pathway has another component: memory. Repeated rounds of pleasure and reward create connections with memory and learning. The result is that things that have been associated with experiences of pleasure and reward also become wired into the circuit. This is how the brain learns to associate smoking with positive things and experiences.
For example, being in a place that’s associated with smoking, visiting a smoking friend or even hearing a certain song can trigger the urge to light up. Cues like food or drink, or habitual behaviors that go along with smoking such as having a morning cup of coffee, can also trigger cravings for nicotine.
Because the link between smoking and pleasant memories is strong, this creates attentional bias—a heightened awareness of those cues, so that you pay much more attention to them and respond more strongly to them than to others.
In the Addictions study, participants were shown photographs depicting positive images of smoking, and their responses were measured. Compared to the placebo group, the participants who were taking CBD had less intense responses to these psychological triggers. Though they still craved nicotine, they were able to reduce their consumption by that stunning 40% margin.
But why did this happen? A look at the way CBD affects the brain’s pleasure-reward-memory pathways can offer some insights.
CBD Can Moderate Chemical Imbalances and Reduce External Smoking Cues Through the ECS
Though it doesn’t provide the high that psychoactive THC does, CBD can act on the pleasure-reward-memory pathways by triggering responses in the body’s own natural cannabinoid receptor system, called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
CBD is a natural anti-inflammatory agent, and studies suggest that it plays a role in restoring balance to many of the body’s systems. In this way, CBD can moderate imbalances in brain chemistry that cause mood disorders like anxiety and depression—and also those that contribute to addiction.
Some research reveals that CBD can boost the body’s production of a natural cannabinoid called anandamide, which also produces positive feelings and supports the serotonin-dopamine pathways. CBD can also support normal signaling processes in the brain; this can help regulate the production of these chemicals.
But the Addictions study suggests that CBD also plays a little-known but important role in the reconsolidation process by reducing the intensity of connections between using nicotine and its pleasure triggers in the brain. This is why, even though the people in the study group still felt cravings for cigarettes and experienced withdrawal symptoms when they didn’t smoke, they didn’t respond as strongly to external cues for smoking—helping them smoke less.
CBD May Also Affect the Body’s Ability to Metabolize Nicotine
In addition to the effects on the please-reward-memory pathways, a more recent study published in January 2023 suggests that the CBD may also have helpful physiological effects for those trying to kick a tobacco habit. Researchers out of Washington State University concluded that low concentrations of CBD could inhibit the metabolism of nicotine. They tested liver enzymes associated with this process and came to the conclusion that several of the enzymes in question were inhibited; this leads them to believe that CBD could actually help to curb the cravings for tobacco. It may also help in a number of other helpful ways, including the reduction of anxiety and anti-inflammatory effects.
More research is needed to determine the full picture of CBD’s helpfulness when it comes to quitting smoking, but there are already promising studies we can point to as important. If you want to learn more, we can help.
Our cannabis counsellors are available to chat, free of charge, to help you get what you want and need out of your cannabis experience. Give us a call today.