Individuals’ different responses to cannabis become apparent the moment you start wrapping up a smoke session. You’ve probably seen it a dozen times — after passing a joint around a smoke circle, one person can’t stop laughing at everything everyone says, another is proclaiming the profundities of some ancient philosopher, and yet another is “resting their eyes.” While humorous to observe the panoply of personalities, this setting provides an important observation: the cannabinoids and terpenes found in different cannabis products interact with everyone’s internal biochemistry differently.
Naturally, aspects of your lifestyle like how much exercise you’ve been getting, your sleep patterns, and diet all play a role in how you’ll respond to a cannabis product on any given day. However, the most critical factor is the makeup of your endocannabinoid system — the chemicals and neurons in your brain and body that respond to cannabinoids. DNA holds the specific instructions for how your endocannabinoid system gets “wired up” compared to other people.
A quick introduction to DNA
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a long molecule that contains the instructions for building every single part of an organism. DNA is made up of four compounds that pair up: (A) Adenine, (T) Thymine, (C) Cytosine, and (G) Guanine. 99.5% of the base pair combinations that make up humans are identical from person to person. The .5% difference is what makes you unique. Variants are the genetic differences that make up that .5%.
Many readers may be familiar with the term “gene,” which is simply a section of DNA that carries the code for making and organizing specific molecules that eventually serve as the building blocks for different parts and functions of an organism. Variants in specific genes have been identified as the determinants for thousands of different traits, from whether you’ll have blue or green eyes to whether or not you’ll have muscular dystrophy. As new research is conducted on cannabis and the body, more genetic links that can predict your response to cannabis are beginning to surface.
Cannabis and your DNA
With genes holding the instructions for the creation of enzymes and proteins that go on to make up all the constituents of your brain and body, its easy to see how this could affect your endocannabinoid system and, subsequently, your experience with cannabis. An extreme example of this is Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD) — a genetic condition where the carrier’s body produces significantly less endogenous cannabinoids and receptors compared to a healthy person. CECD presents an obvious linkage between DNA and cannabis use: if you carry a gene for CECD, you will require substantially more cannabis in order to achieve the same effects as someone without that gene. Other genetic links that predict your response to cannabis can be a bit more insidious.
Take the genes CYP2C9 and CYP2C19 for example; they code for an enzyme that breaks down THC and CBD respectively. Variants on these genes can make the enzymes they create up to 30% less effective. This means that consumers with those variants would be less effective in breaking down THC and CBD. This breakdown process is a critical variable to consider when ingesting chemicals. In fact, some pharmaceuticals specifically target this breakdown system by creating drugs that inhibit the breakdown of endogenous chemicals so that they can remain effective longer and produce “more” of their intended outcome.
For example, SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors; the leading pharmaceutical anti-depressant) delay the breakdown of serotonin (a positive mood-regulating neurotransmitter) in the synapse (the small space that allows transmission of neurotransmitters across neurons) so that an individual’s serotonin (which is usually not as present in depressed populations) can continue to operate, yielding a “happier” person. Similarly, the sluggish breakdown of THC will result in a user feeling “higher” for longer. Unfortunately, this can also lead to drowsiness in users with the variant for up to three days after initial consumption.
Naturally, insights into which variants on the CYPC9 and CYP2C19 an individual has can help guide dosage/titration models as well as which product categories to choose (e.g. choosing a vaporizer over edibles if suffering from sub-optimal breakdown, since most breakdown is mediated by the liver). Such information into drug metabolism has fueled the burgeoning field of pharmacogenetics, where medical doctors take a personalized approach to pharmaceutical medication based on the patient’s DNA.
DNA insights for personalized cannabis use
Given the effectiveness of cannabis as a treatment option for a wide variety of disorders and diseases and the reliability of DNA in determining an individual’s likelihood of developing a particular condition, it stands to reason that by taking genetic predispositions into consideration users can optimize their choice of cannabis products. Taking into account the tens of thousands of cannabis products and strains available on the legal market, consumers face a plethora of options with varying cannabinoid and terpene ratios — the most critical variables for determining the different effects and medical benefits of cannabis.
Such a range of products, coupled with an understanding of one’s DNA, allows for a personalized product selection by connecting the dots across different research findings. For example, a host of genes can predispose someone to developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. On the other side of the equation, studies have shown that pinene (a terpene found in cannabis and other plants like pine trees) has a neuroprotective effect that specifically enhances memory. Cannabis users with such predispositions would be wise to take preventative health measures by routinely choosing cannabis products high in pinene. Similar associations exist for users with a tendency to develop schizophrenia or have psychotic episodes, where low-THC, high-CBD products can provide anti-psychotic effects. Similar reasoning applies to individuals at a high-risk for cancer being able to take advantage of high-THC, anti-cancer products.
As regulation begins allowing scientists to access cannabis for research studies, more insights that can help predetermine the effectiveness of cannabis use at the level of an individual is certainly on the horizon. Other avenues could also provide insights into other aspects of cannabis use as well. For example, new research from 2018 has even unveiled 35 genes that make you 11% more likely to be a cannabis consumer and revealed an interesting overlap in cannabis use with a gene (CADM2) that has been traditionally associated with risk-taking. Information like this, combined with genes that predispose individuals for abuse could be used to guide scheduled tolerance breaks.
Regardless of the application, additional research into DNA, cannabinoids, and terpenes promises to refine the personalized approach to cannabis that all consumers should consider taking.
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