It wouldn't be unfair to say that 2020 has been one hell of a year, and the need to escape from reality — if even for a few hours — is more tempting than ever. Consuming cannabis can be good for what ails you in so many ways, from its medicinal compounds that could help calm inflammation and contribute to a better night's sleep, to its ability to bring a feeling of euphoria that could take your mind momentarily off of the world's troubles.
For all the myriad benefits of cannabis consumption, there can be a few downsides, especially for novice consumers, including the dreaded “green out." Defined as an experience caused by consuming too much cannabis, signs of a green out include nausea, sweating, dizziness, vomiting, severe anxiety, increased heart rate, reduced blood pressure, and even mild hallucinations.
While the research is still out as to what precisely causes a green out, anecdotal accounts from consumers and doctors hold that THC — the intoxicating cannabinoid responsible for the high you feel while consuming — accountable.
Greening out and the endocannabinoid system
All mammals have an endocannabinoid system (ECS), composed of endogenous (internal) endocannabinoids, enzymes, and receptors. Humans often ingest exogenous (external) cannabinoids through cannabis consumption, most famously the non-intoxicating CBD and the aforementioned THC. But humans also produce two endocannabinoids on their own; anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol.
Both endogenous and exogenous cannabinoids bind to CB receptors called CB1 and CB2. These receptors are located throughout the body, including skeletal tissues, internal organs, and the skin to help create bodily harmony, or homeostasis. When your body is out of whack in some way, let's say it needs to respond to a change in outside temperature for example, the ECS rounds up endogenous cannabinoids to help bring your body back to balance.
Though all of these exogenous and endogenous cannabinoids bind to CB receptors, anandamide binds in a way that more intuitively helps moderate systems like fertility, pain, depression, appetite, and so on. Too much THC, however, can bind excessively to CB receptors, which can make you feel like you're on the road to a green out.
How high THC can lead to a green out
In the era of legalization, consumers are clearing dispensary shelves of cannabis strains with THC percentages north of 20%, expecting a kick-ass high. However, a recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder and published in JAMA Psychiatry contradicts that notion. The research found that even though smoking high-potency cannabis will definitely boost the levels of THC in your blood, it won't get you any higher than if you'd consumed a strain with lower potency.
Whether or not you green out has a lot to do with how frequently you consume, what type of cannabis you consume, and how much THC you can tolerate. For example, if you go a bit overboard on your first dabbing experience, or you consume that 100 milligram edible all in one sitting, you have a pretty good chance of greening out.
While there's never been a case of humans dying from cannabis toxicity, consumers should always be mindful about how much they're consuming, especially when it comes to high potency strains. One 2019 study found that cannabis use has been associated with acute myocardial infarction (heart attack), thrombus formation, stroke, and death. There are some known symptoms of greening out, like rapid heart rate, that could exacerbate an underlying health condition.
How to avoid or get out of a green out
If you find yourself in the green out zone, there are a few things you can do to ride the storm.
If you are with friends or people you trust, ask them to stay with you until you feel well enough to be on your own. Drink plenty of water, have a snack, and get comfy. If you can manage it, try deep breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, or even take a warm bath.
The trick is to engage your mind with pretty much anything other than how terrible you feel, and to create a calm, reassuring environment for yourself.
Some studies have shown that counteracting too much THC with CBD may help tame a green out, while terpenes like beta-caryophyllene (found in black pepper) and limonene (found in citrus fruits) have been shown to recalibrate the feelings of anxiety that are part and parcel of a green out.
However, the best way to avoid a green out is to simply not consume too much cannabis, especially high potency strains. If you are new to cannabis, try strains that aren't too high in THC, or strains that are at least more balanced by other cannabinoids. As tasty as it might be, don't eat that whole edible.
Last but not least, if you are a consumer with a condition that could be exacerbated by any green out symptoms, particularly rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, dizziness, anxiety, or vomiting, remember the cardinal cannabis consumption rule: start low and go slow. Your friends might get baked before you, but who cares? Safety first.
Featured image by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps