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 cravings for nicotine. This is especially true when they come up against cues for smoking, like being at a party, drinking certain beverages like coffee 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:
CBD has also been studied for its ability to disrupt addiction 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?
Until relatively recently, little research has been done on whether CBD can also disrupt nicotine addiction and help people quit smoking. But a new study published in the journal Addiction provides 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 that are currently available.
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.
The study found that overall, CBD didn’t affect nicotine withdrawal symptoms. And it didn’t completely stop cravings for cigarettes either. But 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—the brain then 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.
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.
The link between CBD and smoking has been studied far less than CBD’s effect on addictions of other kinds. But these limited studies suggest that CBD could be a useful tool for helping people quit smoking, especially when it’s consumed the way the study participants did—by vaping, a method that’s very similar to smoking.
Photo credit: Elena Taranenko
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