Here’s what symptom relief with cannabis feels like for medical patients

By Meg Hartley
Published on May 14, 2020 • Last updated July 28, 2020

Being a medical cannabis patient often means knowing two worlds—the symptom-ridden world of being in need of medication, and the world of bodily woes dramatically reduced. Because the endocannabinoid system works with other systems throughout the body, cannabis is able to lessen or even eliminate painful health conditions for millions of patients around the world.

I’m one such medicator, and I often find myself describing the sensation of how cannabis changes my symptoms of illness with illustrative language. I wondered how other medical cannabis patients describe the before and after of symptoms, so I reached out to other fighters of a variety of health conditions for some insight on how it feels for them.

I discovered that I am far from being alone in understanding that magic moment of relief. From CBD giving one woman back her ability to drive and to dream (not at the same time), to one man’s sudden insight into how Popeye must feel when spinach gives him that pep, this plant is helping all kinds of people, in all kinds of ways.

Fighters for health describe how medical cannabis helps
Stefanie, Mixed Connective Tissue Disease, age 36, San Diego, CA

“Before, I feel like my chronic pain is taking up space in my lungs, my skin, and my joints. After I use cannabis, I feel the chronic pain melt away, and I feel like I can take the first deep breath. It feels like all the pain that is creeping just beneath my skin suddenly melts into the rest of my body and I feel heavy/cozy and light/weightless at the same time.”

Brian Penny, Chronic Pain, age 39, Tucson, AZ

“I totally understand Popeye better as an adult than I did watching as a child. The moment the THC hits, I notice a Joker-like smile start to spread across my face. My speech speeds up (if I’m talking to someone), and when I realize it happened, I stop and comment on it. Then I laugh and forget what I was initially talking about.

Chronic pain is what I’m treating, and that’s actually what causes the smile (and that Popeye feeling). It gets pretty miserable waking up in the morning, but as soon as the medication kicks in, it lightens the load on my body immensely. It’s a pep-in-your-step kinda thing that gets me off the couch and getting things done, rather than the typical couch lock stereotype. Without it, the combination of pain and age make me feel like I’m moving through quicksand.”

Seth, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, age 36, Framingham, MA

“I have irritable bowel syndrome, which can be quite debilitating to my lifestyle. Some days are normal and others are a must-get-to-the-bathroom-immediately nightmare. There really isn’t a medication or cure, but my friend Mary Jane has changed everything.

IBS is triggered by my stress and anxiety, and to manage that I consume cannabis in a variety of ways. I’m less anxious at work and in social settings, I sleep without my mind racing, and I have normal bowel movements way more often than ever before. Life with IBS will never be perfect, but with cannabis it’s no doubt much better.”

Anita Wolf, Fibromyalgia, age 55, Paso Robles, CA

“Part of fibro is bad sleep, not entering REM, not getting restorative sleep. I went years not getting the right kind of sleep. I now smoke some cannabis before bed and I can feel my body melting into sleep. My mind quiets, my legs relax (restless leg is not just disruptive but very painful), my peripheral neuropathy quiets, and once in full effect, I can roll onto my side. I actually wake up and not feel like getting out of bed is useless.

I am still stiff in the morning but I dream! I hadn’t dreamt in years before cannabis! I don’t take pain meds anymore. My body has had a chance to recharge. I still have pain but not nearly as bad. I use cbd during the day when the pain gets too bad. I can actually drive distances without excruciating pain. I drove 5 hours one day and thanks to a fairly good night’s sleep and my CBD vape I made it without tears.”

Sophie Ryan, Optic Pathway Glioma Brain Tumor, age 7, Sherman Oaks, CA

“Cannabis makes me feel healthy and strong! It has really helped me with my boo boo in my brain and it keeps the seizures away. If I don’t have my cannabis my seizures come back really fast, and I don’t like that. My mommy said that my immune system is extra strong too, and that helps me stay well. I love taking cannabis!”

Mary, CPTSD, Anxiety, Depression, Arthritis, age 36, Portland, OR

“Before MJ I often feel stuck ruminating on a subject. Cannabis frees me from repetitive thinking patterns and disrupts me to focus on something that feels good. Physically, my body feels less tight, and I am able to relax.”

Lauren, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Dercums Disease, age 32, San Diego, CA

“I’ve always felt the feeling of a warm gooey egg being cracked on the top of my head, that melts, loosens, and soothes my symptom-laden body as it makes it way down. Without it, I’d be regularly immobile, unable to eat or take necessary medicine, and stuck using opiates, steroids, and NSAIDs, which I now avoid. Cannabis aids my recovery from migraines and reduces the varied neurological symptoms of neuroinflammation or brain fog.

It simultaneously seems to repair my proprioception, rectifies my overactive autoimmune response, and soothes my gastrointestinal illness by activating the rest/digest state of my otherwise hypervigilant autonomic nervous system while stimulating my appetite. Weed relieves many types of pain, most notably, my vascular spasticity, allodynia, neuropathic pain, myofascial tumors, lymphatic flow, and chronic inflammation.

Cerebrally, I literally feel my vibration frequency shift once the purp has done its tasks. I become more mindful, patient, and empathic as minor euphoria highlights the vibrant, radiant colors of life, savoring moments of beauty and expressing our souls highest good through music and art.

This sacred herb services us in the process of honoring our self-love, embracing grounding embodiment practices, and prioritizing the wellness rituals of our self-care. Ultimately it unites people while embracing our need to simultaneously remain autonomous agents. Its miraculous magic just lights me up about life!”

The stoner’s guide to the Wim Hof Method

By Meg Hartley
Published on April 23, 2020 • Last updated July 28, 2020

Have you heard of the Wim Hof Method (WHM)? It’s a wellness practice that involves concentrated breathing exercises followed by exposure to extremely cold temperatures, and it’s said to result in all kinds of health benefits. It has also led to Hof himself breaking many world records for cold temperature exposure. 

This is pretty cool on its own, but it also turns out that WHM can raise the levels of your body’s natural cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids.

Like many, I was introduced to the eccentrically delightful Wim Hof—often called “The Iceman”—via the recent Netflix documentary, which features a group of Goop Lab staffers doing an ice-cold plunge after breathing exercises. That week, a doctor I interviewed for a Leafly article coincidentally brought up WHM too, suggesting it might help me manage fibromyalgia symptoms because it raises natural cannabinoid levels. 

As you might know, endocannabinoids are the body’s version of the cannabinoids in cannabis; they interact with the receptors in our endocannabinoid system (ECS) in our bodies to regulate a large variety of functions and help keep the body in balance, so all kinds of things can go awry when your body isn’t making enough of them. It seems that breathing exercises, plus freezing water, can help.

The science of The Iceman

Professors at Wayne State University published a study on how The Iceman’s brain responds during controlled whole-body cold-temperature exposure. They studied Hof and found stunning differences in how he reacted to cold exposure compared to other healthy adults.

They expected him to show significant brain activations where the brain’s higher thermoregulatory centers are located, but instead they observed differences located in his upper brainstem. “This area is associated with brain mechanisms for the control of sensory pain and is thought to implement this control through the release of opioids and cannabinoids,” said Otto Muzik, PhD, one of the authors of the study, in a statement

The study explains that the release of endocannabinoids due to WHM leads to a state of relaxed, euphoric well-being: “This mechanism might mediate the release of endogenous opioids/cannabinoids in both the periphery (via the descending pain/cold suppression pathway) and the CNS … leading to a feeling of euphoria, anxiolysis [decreased anxiety] and a sense of well-being, which further promotes an attentionally focused (mindful) state that augments the analgesic effect of endocannabinoids.” 

Unfortunately, for those of us hoping to get ECS perks with the breathing exercises minus the freezing temperatures, the study says that the freezing element is needed to really get the ECS pumping: “Our results agree with earlier studies showing that aversive stimuli to the skin (thermal, mechanical or chemical) are particularly potent in activating endocannabinoid anti-nociception [blocking the detection of painful stimuli] in higher cognitive areas.” 

The study also relates the boost to the ECS as a hope for healing autoimmune disease: “Moreover, endocannabinoids inhibit oedema [swelling] and inflammation … which agrees well with previous reports that describe a decreased immune response associated with WHM practice.” 

This is why that doctor suggested WHM could help me manage fibromyalgia, as well as other diseases thought to be centered around the autoimmune response.

How to do the Wim Hof Method

Reaping the benefits of the Wim Hof Method is pretty darn simple. All you need to do is get comfortable, sitting or lying down, and follow the instructions in this 11-minute video: 

Take 30 deep breaths, doing something called wave breathing: fill your stomach fully with air, then your lungs, then release through your mouth.

After the 30th breath, breathe out all air and try to hold it for one minute. When the minute is up, breathe in and spend fifteen seconds with your lungs filled to capacity, then release—this is the glorious time when I start to feel those endocannabinoids roll in. 

Just as what happens with herb, my fibromyalgia pain is lessened in a whooooosh that causes such relief, it’s euphoric. With WHM, this moment’s relief is also accompanied by an intoxicating sensation that I rarely get from cannabis (as a full-time medical user).

And then you start again. The second and third rounds have you hold your breath out for 90 seconds, but it’s important to not push it, and take a breath if you need to. I’ve noticed that the pleasurable sensations tend to increase with each round, which is fun. 

After the third round comes the cold shower. I like to do a dry brush before mine, which helps detoxify the body and also feels really nice after all that tingly-making breathwork. 

Let’s get Hoffy

So, it’s been one month of daily Wim Hoffing it up, and I must say: I still do not like cold showers. However, I do already see the benefits of taking them, as they leave my energy stores a bit rejuvenated and my skin feeling weirdly awesome for the rest of the day. 

I started with just barely making it through a minute-long cold shower, and now my longest time is a little over three minutes—I’m digging the self-competition element to WHM as well.

And the team at Wim Hof actually put out a free Quarantine Challenge just for the current situation, which takes this exercise through 40 days, ending in 5 rounds of breathing and a two-minute cold shower. Hey, what else are you gonna do? Plus, what better time to boost your immune system?

Best wishes on this journey, and as Hof says, “enjoy getting high on your own supply.”  

Does cannabis make you poo?

By Meg Hartley
Published on April 13, 2020 • Last updated July 28, 2020

Have you ever sat down for a nice session but after a few tokes suddenly have to get up to hit the bathroom? I noticed a connection so I asked the internet, which provided abundant anecdotal evidence, proving I wasn’t alone in my pondering. After I started peeking into what science had to say on the matter, my curiosity only increased.

I did a deep dive into studies on the subject, as well as consulted a couple experts, and it turns out the connection between smoking a bowl and going #2 is no coincidence. Between cannabis calming our nerves, its effect on the gut’s microbiome, and the endocannabinoid system being involved in the activity in this department, it looks like weed can, indeed, make us doodie.

Too stressed to go

I spoke with medical cannabis expert and integrative medicine physician Dustin Sulak, D.O. “Endocannabinoids absolutely do affect motility, both directly and indirectly. The most powerful way in which cannabis could help a person defecate is by helping them to relax and get into a more parasympathetic state,” said Sulak.

Another way to think of a parasympathetic state is “rest and digest,” with defecation being part of the digest aspect. This is opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body to act quickly. There is an evolutionary reason for not being able to poo while in a fight-or-flight state enacted by the sympathetic nervous system: “If we’re escaping from a bear attacking us, we don’t want to have to defecate,” said Sulak.

He continued, “Conversely, when it’s time to relax and empty our bowels, we don’t want to feel threatened. That has to happen in a place where we feel comfortable. But, unfortunately, a lot of people are taking their stressors around with them, even into the bathroom, with their phones or just in their minds, remaining stressed out, feeling threatened in some way.” 

But cannabis, and endocannabinoids that our bodies produce, can help. “Our inner pharmacy’s version of cannabis, the endocannabinoids, and herbal cannabis, have the ability to suppress this excessive sympathetic activity. So if the fight-or-flight response is turned on too strongly, the right dose of cannabis can suppress it. This is obvious to people who use cannabis to help them relax and find relief from anxiety. The same mechanism would allow someone to shift into rest and digest, or parasympathetic dominance, and get the job done,” he said.

The Goldilocks zone

Endocannabinoids help keep the body in balance. One of those endocannabinoids, 2-AG, is an important physiologic regulator of gastrointestinal motility—i.e., pooping—and behaves like THC. “That’s one of our body’s signaling molecules that mimics THC, or THC mimics it. 2-AG is active in regulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic influence on the gut, and in the gut itself, where it suppresses excessive activity and brings the system into balance,” said Sulak. 

So in this way, cannabis could lead to a deuce by helping keep our nervous system and our gut in the “Goldilocks zone,” or the healthy range of activity.

Cannabis can also help someone get into the needed relaxed state by relieving pain. “When people are in chronic pain, even if it has nothing to do with the rectum—if it’s their foot or their leg or their head—that still creates a kind of threatening internal state. So it can be hard when in pain or feeling anxiety to relax enough to use the bathroom. Cannabis can be very useful for that,” said Sulak.

Dr. Sulak concluded with a word of caution: “For people with constipation not related to stress or pain, cannabis could potentially worsen the issue because it can suppress muscular contractions and secretion in the colon, the same ways in which it can help with diarrhea.”

More on cannabis and BMs

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is also integral to the brain-gut axis, which modulates activity in this realm, including helping people poop. This 2016 study says that the ECS is “An important physiologic regulator of gastrointestinal motility,” meaning bowel movements.

Foremost psychopharmacology researcher Ethan Russo, M.D., also told us, “A lot of people note easier bowel movements after cannabis. This can alleviate both constipation or diarrhea associated with irritable bowel syndrome, a presumptive clinical endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome. THC also positively alters the gut microbiome and this effect should not be discredited.”

Additionally, a 2019 study found that cannabis consumption was associated with a 30% decrease in constipation. 

So, if you’ve ever wondered if there’s a connection between enjoying herb and needing to head for a #2—‘tis not in your imagination. Next time you need a little help, maybe try sparking up a doobie so you can dookie. 

Stay regular, friends.

What’s next for psychedelic decriminalization?

Meg Hartley
Published on March 4, 2020 • Last updated July 28, 2020

There’s a fast-expanding movement that aims to help people with PTSD, mood disorders, substance-use disorders, chronic pain, cluster headache, psychological distress associated with life-threatening illness, and more. 

The movement to decriminalize entheogenic plants—psychedelics—is young, but has already succeeded in three cities, with many more in the works. The force behind this tide is an organization called Decriminalize Nature (DN), who uses an open-source format to help communities all over the world start healing. 

They’ve already led the charge to success in Denver, CO, and Oakland, CA, and last month Santa Cruz, CA, joined in as well. We talked to two of the founders to get a feel for the motivating forces of the movement, how it’s different from the cannabis legalization movement, and what’s next on the agenda.

Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz decriminalize

Let’s take a look at what the Decriminalize Nature (DN) team has already done. Denver was the first city to take the leap, passing Initiative 301 in May of last year, which prohibits the city from “spending resources to imposing criminal penalties” on adults 21 and over for use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms, and moves imposing penalties to “the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority.” 

Oakland was up the next month, decriminalizing entheogenic plants in general, which includes mushrooms and a full spectrum of entheogenic plants—psychedelics like ibogaayahuasca, and cacti (similar to peyote), as well as others. It relegates the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for growing, using, or possessing entheogenic plants by adults as “amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Oakland.” 

And in January 2020, Santa Cruz joined the party, unanimously ruling to make the personal possession and use of entheogenic plants and fungi a low priority for law enforcement. 

Santa Cruz mayor Justin Cummings told Leafly via email: “The decriminalization of these plants and fungi is an opportunity to allow members of our community who benefit mentally, physically, and spiritually from these substances to live without persecution by our local law enforcement.” He also noted the powerful therapy potential and importance of further research.

You may have noticed that none of these resolutions mention anything about moving toward the sale, regulation, or distribution of these plants. This is quite intentional—instead of a traditional marketplace, DN’s vision for entheogenic plants is centered around community, and they hope to avoid many of the present-day challenges with the legalization of cannabis.

The philosophy behind the movement

Carlos Plazola, Decriminalize Nature’s Co-Founder, Chair, and National Co-Lead, said the model for creating a structure for the commodification of goods is “driven either by creating taxation to pay for service, or they’re driven by folks who are interested in profiting.” 

Believing that entheogens should be legal and the exchange of them regulated, DN reverses the profit model completely: “Our process is really a bottom-up process that is focusing on compassion and healing as the main objective; a mission, so to speak,” said Plazola. “We encourage people to grow their own, gather their own, gift their own, and to build community that way as well. In a perfect world, there will be no such thing as a black market.” 

He stresses the personal nature of consuming entheogens: “Do you want to do it in a church, under a spiritual type of ceremony? Want to do it with an indegenous healer? You know, are you coming out of prison and you want to get restorative justice centers to offer you healing services? Are you going through a 12-step program and you need to do alcoholic recovery?”

The movement’s gaining momentum

When asked if there has been any pushback, Plazola noted, “Because it’s about healing, not about profit or taxation, people are really receptive. It turns out that everybody wants the community to heal. We’re suffering from severe mental health problems and a shortage of services for people, and so this could be a solution. City leaders are pretty supportive.”

And that’s just the beginning. Larry Norris, ND’s Co-Founder, board member, and National Co-Lead, said the next city they’re focusing on is Berkeley. “Hopefully within the next few months, we’ll have a final vote,” he said. “Chicago could be having their final vote soon.” 

And the surge continues: “I know that there are a lot of other cities that are working on this—Hallandale Beach, Florida, has already talked to the city council, Seattle’s making some good moves, in Spokane there’s a ballot initiative. It’s happening. Portland has a ballot initiative,” said Norris. There’s also a movement in Washington, DC, proposed by a woman who healed her postpartum depression using psychedelics. 

Norris explained that there are about 15-20 cities actively engaged, with many more working to get there. Each city does things a little differently, such as Dallas, Texas, which added cannabis to their resolution, and Chicago emphasized the need to combat the opiate crisis. The DN movement has even gone global—there are folks reaching out from Ireland, Chile, Germany, and the Netherlands, and even Russia downloaded a DN graphics package.

DN offers their resources in an open-source format, meaning people will be given free materials to enable them to essentially just change paperwork to their city’s name. They also offer webinars at least monthly to answer questions about the decriminalization process, as well as private Facebook groups and a Slack channel. All of their graphics are available for free, giving organizers tools to help new DN chapters build a community.

“We’re really trying to empower the people to engage with their city council members, to be involved in democratic process, to really stand up for what’s helped them and heal them,” said Norris. 

Plants with purpose

While these plants have great potential for healing several mental health issues—and the research holds up—Norris said that some people are anxious about doing them under the observation of a traditional therapist. To address the need for experienced guidance and support, they have a nonprofit called Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education (ERIE), of which Norris is the Executive Director.

ERIE provides educational support to the movement and organizes community “integration circles” where people can come together and share their often transformational stories. Norris said not all therapeutic forms of taking entheogenic plants need to involve traditional therapy, but can also include “approaches and services that aren’t therapy, but are therapeutic.” 

Norris hopes for a future that includes community gardens that grow entheogens. “We need the biodiversity, there’s all this concrete everywhere,” he said, adding that the movement presents an “opportunity to engage with planting and connecting with nature.”

He also mused on the potential for intergenerational and intercultural dialogues—with elders helping young people to navigate these plants, like many cultures around the world do in rite of passage ceremonies. 

“We’re talking about a relationship that’s been severed for thousands of years for many people … that have been in their ancestral lineages for a long time across the world,” he said. He noted how such a long history speaks to the safety of these drugs, which is comparable to cannabis.

If you’re interested in getting involved with the movement to decriminalize entheogens, reach out to Decriminalize Nature, and they’ll send you a welcome packet with all kinds of information about how to get your city rolling, or they’ll connect you with a local chapter that already is.