Why Cannabis Makes You So Thirsty
Water is, unsurprisingly, one of the best ways to cure cottonmouth. Image Credit: By miami beach forever on shutterstock.
Whether you’re an experienced cannabis user with a fondness for wax or a novice who just bought their first bag of gummies, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered one of the plant’s most notorious side effects: extreme thirst. This phenomenon is often referred to as “dry mouth” or, more colorfully, “cottonmouth.”
Cottonmouth is exactly what it sounds like — the sensation that every drop of moisture has been sucked out of your mouth, leaving it as parched and desiccated as the desert of your choice (for most people, the Sahara is the go-to option). It’s such a common phenomenon that it features prominently in almost every bit of cannabis-related pop culture from the past few decades, even inspiring the name of a deeply untalented rap-punk group called the Kottonmouth Kings. As you might imagine, it’s nobody’s favorite part of the cannabis experience.
But while everyone with the faintest acquaintance of cannabis is familiar with cottonmouth, few actually understand what causes it, or what its real effects are. On one hand, excessive dryness of the mouth seems like the kind of easily solvable problem that doesn’t merit anything more than a chuckle and perhaps a Big Gulp or two. However (cue the ominous news report jingle), could there be a darker side to this “minor” side effect?
How Cannabis Causes “Cottonmouth”
Most of cannabis’ side effects can be linked to its most famous compound, tetrahydrocannabinol. Known to most people as THC, it’s the most common phytocannabinoid in the plant, and it’s also what makes you feel high.
Phytocannabinoids like THC are closely related to another set of chemicals produced in the human body, which are known as endocannabinoids (see the resemblence?). THC, in particular, is similar in structure to an endocannabinoid called anandamide, which is sometimes called “the bliss molecule.” Scientists now believe that anandamide is responsible for the famous “runner’s high,” which might be one of the reasons why cannabis and exercise isn’t as odd a pairing as it might seem.
But that’s not all that anandamide can do. According to a 2006 study, it also significantly decreases saliva production in rats. That’s because, like all mammals (including humans!), rats have cannabinoid receptors located in their salivary glands. Both endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids can interact with these receptors — and when anandamide comes into contact with them, it shuts off the faucets, so to speak.
Maybe you see where this is going.
The researchers in the study mentioned above were inspired to investigate whether salivary glands have cannabinoid receptors because, in their words, “It is known that marijuana use decreases saliva secretion.” Since THC and anandamide are so alike in their chemical structure and effects, it stands to reason that THC would also have the ability to decrease the production of saliva.
More studies are needed to confirm this, as they often are in the scientific world, but the idea seems clear: THC might give you the munchies, but it also (literally) makes your mouth stop watering.
Can Cannabis-Induced Cottonmouth Be Dangerous?
Nobody has ever died from a cannabis overdose, and nobody has ever died from a bad case of cottonmouth, either. While it might be annoying at times, for most people it’s not a significant cause for alarm.
However, we might want to take cottonmouth a little more seriously, because it can lead to significant dental issues. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), cottonmouth (“xerostomia” in medical lingo) “can contribute to a number of oral health conditions,” like cavities, gingivitis or other periodontal diseases, and oral thrush (aka a yeast infection in your mouth).
This might seem like a disproportionate response to a bit of thirstiness, but it highlights just how important saliva is to your oral health. If you weren’t aware of this before, don’t feel bad — most people have no idea what saliva actually does, either. According to a 2015 review in the journal Nature, “The importance of the salivary glands – and saliva – tends to go unnoticed until the glands malfunction.” It’s only once they do that we realize just how versatile saliva can be. Here’s a quick list of some of its main functions:
- Curbs growth of harmful bacteria
- Prevents tooth decay
- Repairs hard and soft tissues
- Protects tooth enamel
- Helps digest food
- Enhances tastes
- Enables speech
So that’s the bad news — cannabis-induced cottonmouth isn’t quite as amusing as it might seem at first glance. But don’t despair, because it’s also not a particularly hard problem to solve once you know what to try (and what to avoid).
How to Deal With Cannabis’ Cottonmouth Effects
Most experienced cannabis users have their own go-to remedies when cottonmouth strikes. As you might expect, some of these are more effective than others, and a few are downright counterproductive. Here’s a quick breakdown:
Things That Won’t Help Get Rid of Cottonmouth
Cannabis beverages might seem like a clever way to feed two birds with one scone (yes, we saw the PETA memes). But while throwing back a cannabis cocktail or two might temporarily wet your whistle, it won’t do so for long — and not only will the THC decrease your saliva, but the booze will present problems of its own.
Alcohol makes you just as thirsty as cannabis, but for different reasons. According to a 2017 paper from Japanese researchers, consuming alcohol activates certain regions of your brain that trigger “[thirst] sensation and oral dryness.”
Coffee, tea, and fruit juice should also be avoided when dealing with cottonmouth. This is because all of these beverages contain tannins, compounds that leave a dry and astringent taste in your mouth (which makes sense, since the plants from which these drinks are made often produce tannins to make themselves less appetizing to predators).
Soda, as you may have heard, tends to be high in sugar and/or caffeine. Both of these things dehydrate you, so when you reach for that ice-cold Coke, chances are good you’ll be reaching for another before long.
Mouthwashes with alcohol, such as Listerine, can give your mouth a fresh and sparkly feeling. Unfortunately, the alcohol and other astringent ingredients in them mean that you’ll be just as thirsty as you were before, though perhaps your breath will smell better.
Things That Will Help Get Rid of Cottonmouth
Water: you really can’t go wrong with the most popular beverage in the world, so long as it isn’t flavored.
Sugar-free chewing gum can stimulate your saliva glands through the act of chewing (this motion also helps release stress, which is one reason CBD gum has become so popular with pro golfers). Plus, the lack of sugar.
Alcohol-free mouthwashes like Closys not only help restore moisture to your mouth, but many also contain ingredients like xylitol that can help protect against tooth decay.
Oral adhesive disks such as XyliMelts are an option for people whose cottonmouth can’t be controlled with conventional methods. These products can be placed on your teeth or gums, where they’ll slowly release ingredients that help promote greater saliva production.
What About CBD? Could That Help With Cottonmouth?
We’ve talked a lot about cannabis and THC in this article, but one thing we haven’t mentioned is CBD. This wildly popular cannabinoid has been one of the biggest trends of 2019, and you’ll now find it in everything from maple syrup to meatless burgers. One of the reasons for its sudden ascent is the fact that it won’t get you high, and as a result, many people are under the impression that it won’t cause any of THC’s other side effects, either.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case when it comes to cottonmouth. According to a 2018 survey of CBD consumers, it was the first of five frequently reported side effects.
So if you were looking for another reason to hate CBD sparkling water, there you go.
Everyone knows cannabis makes your mouth dry. But how does it happen, and how big of a problem is it really?
What Marijuana Does To Your Body And Mind
Marijuana comes from the cannabis sativa plant, and is the dried and shredded leaves, stems seeds and flowers. The high you get from marijuana comes from a chemical called Tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC. Some strains contain more or less THC — making them more or less potent.
Most of THC’s effects happen in the brain, where the chemical interacts with receptors on brain cells called cannibinoid receptors. Our bodies actually make chemicals very similar to THC, which are used in normal brain function and development. THC co-opts these natural pathways to produce most of its effects.
Marijuana makes you feel good
When THC hits brain cells, it causes them to release dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical. This is a part of the brain’s reward system, which makes you feel good when you do things that ensure the survival of yourself and your offspring. These things include eating and having sex.
When over-excited by drugs, the reward system creates feelings of euphoria.
.. but that’s not all good
When the rewards system is overstimulated, for example with drugs of abuse like cocaine, it can go haywire and cause a dependence (and in extreme cases addiction) on whatever is providing the rewarding feeling, and also take away from how rewarding normal things, like eating, are.
This can cause apathy and dependence on the drug.
It blocks memory formation
The active ingredient in marijuana acts in the part of the brain called the hippocampus to alter the way information is processed and how memories are formed. Animal studies have shown that this is particularly true while the brain is still developing — specifically why the legal smoking age is 21 in the states that have legalized it.
This blockage of memory formation can cause cognitive impairment in adulthood if use happens during adolescence, at least for rats. It can also quicken age-related brain cell loss, though marijuana has been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
THC messes with your balance
THC messes with brain areas called the cerebellum and basal ganglia, which regulate balance, posture, coordination, and reaction time. When these brain areas are disturbed, the user has a harder time walking and talking correctly, becoming quite clumsy. It also impacts their ability to drive.
Cannabis use may increase the risk of depression
Although there is no conclusive evidence that marijuana makes users depressed (it’s just as likely that people who are depressed use pot), one recent study from the Netherlands found that smoking cannabis increases the risk of depression for young people who have a genetic vulnerability to the mental illness.
In the long-term, smoking marijuana increased depressive symptoms in subjects with a special serotonin gene responsible for increased risk of depression.
Intense anxiety, fear, distrust, or panic are common side effects
Somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of recreational marijuana users react with intense anxiety after taking the drug, making it one of the most commonly reported side effects.
Marijuana users may experience psychosis
Marijuana users who have taken large doses of the drug may experience an acute psychosis, which includes hallucinations, delusions, and a loss of the sense of personal identity. These episodes may be related to the link between marijuana use and psychosis, but are distinct.
Audio and visual hallucinations are common
Along with actual psychosis, cannabis users can also have audio and visual hallucinations, from the effects on the brain areas that process what we see and hear.
These audio hallucinations include “looping” sounds, where one particular sound (that is usually one syllable in duration) will repeat over and over again until it is either replaced by a different sound or the effects of THC begin to wear off.
It robs you of sleep
There are five stages of sleep, which get progressively deeper as the night goes on. The first four stages are called rapid eye movement, or REM. THC, the main active chemical in marijuana, has been shown to interrupt the later phases of REM sleep, the point during the night that is most crucial to making the body feel re-energized when you wake up.
Inhaling marijuana causes your heart rate to increase
Within a few minutes of inhaling marijuana, your heart rate increases, sometimes by 20 to 50 beats per minute (normal is 70 to 80 beats per minute). In some cases, like when taking other drugs with marijuana, heart rate can double.
This heart rate increase usually subsides relatively quickly, in about 20 minutes.
The traditional red eyes of a marijuana user — Visine anyone? — come from blood vessels expanding in the eye.
On uncomfortable effect of smoking weed is dry mouth or thirst.
The common side-effect, equivalent to the feeling of having a bunch of cotton balls shoved in your mouth, is not just the result of inhaling in hot smoke. It turns out cannabinoids receptors are located where our saliva is produced. When these receptors are activated by cannabis use, they inhibit the production of saliva.
After marijuana intake, most people feel the need to eat. And eat a lot. The drug increases food enjoyment and interest in food, increasing appetite. This is thought to be caused by the THC interacting with the cannibinoid receptors in a brain area called the hypothalamus.
Interestingly, a link has been drawn between milk products and cannibinoids. Some researchers think that these cannibinoids in milk play an important role in infant survival, because they stimulate the child’s appetite and cause them to eat more and suckle, which could be why THC has a similar effect in adults.
The drug is also touted for its health benefits
All The Reasons Pot Is Good For You >
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She first joined Business Insider in 2012 as the site’s first science editor. In 2015, she moved to Tech Insider to help launch the new site’s science vertical.
She graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2010 with a graduate certificate in Science Communications and got a Bachelors of Science in Biology from the University of Notre Dame in 2006. In between, she was a research associate at at startup biotech company in San Francisco.
She’s written for Wired Science, The Scientist, Discover Magazine and LiveScience.com, among others.
Dina Spector is the managing editor at Business Insider UK. She is currently based in London.
What Marijuana Does To Your Body And Mind Marijuana comes from the cannabis sativa plant, and is the dried and shredded leaves, stems seeds and flowers. The high you get from marijuana comes from