Cannabinoids act on cannabinoid receptors in the nervous system, endocrine system, and in the sexual organs. We are all making cannabinoids in our body, all the time, for the purpose of regulating cellular health – these are called endocannabinoids. Cannabinoids have a protective and balancing effect on cells, help the various systems of the body communicate with each other, and guide important processes like growth and development, learning and forgetting, resting, and healing.
In the brain, there are more cannabinoid receptors than any other type of neurotransmitter – more than serotonin, dopamine, GABA, etc. These receptors are found more abundantly in some areas than others, and shed light on how cannabis can affect sexuality.
In the hippocampus, part of the brain’s temporal lobe, cannabinoids inhibit short-term memory, bringing people more into the present moment. Most of us spend an incredible amount of mental resources on thoughts of the future and the past – cannabis can help free up that thought power and bring it into the experience at hand, enhancing the five senses and intensifying the experience. Temporarily forgetting about the to-do list may also be helpful for initiating sex (and other creative endeavors) during our busy lives, and for allowing oneself to fully experience the depths of sensuality.
Cannabis also augments a process called fear-extinction, which is useful in forgetting adverse memories that may be limiting the present experience. For example, a person who has been previously raped might have an easier time feeling safe and getting stimulated for sex after using cannabis. Fascinatingly, a positive experience with sex is more likely to transform the recurrent fear of a rape victim if he or she uses cannabis during or after the positive encounter. As you might expect, cannabis is an excellent treatment for PTSD, both relieving symptoms and helping change the underlying patterns of thought and behavior.
Cannabinoid receptors are also found in great abundance in the nucleus accumbens, and a 2014 study of 20 young heavy marijuana users found that they actually had grown larger numbers of cells in this area of the brain compared to controls. The nucleus accumbens plays a role in the enjoyment of pleasurable activities such as eating, emotional reactions to music, and sex. Electrical stimulation of this area can relieve depression.
Cannabis also influences the autonomic nervous system, a major player in sexual attraction, arousal, and orgasm. With inhaled cannabis, most users experience an initial increase in the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system activity, responsible for arousal and ejaculation, followed 15 minutes later by an increase in parasympathetic (rest and digest) activity, responsible for erection. The timing of inhaling cannabis before or during a sexual encounter could significantly alter the effects.
Ayurveda, the 5,000 year old traditional medical system of India, documents using cannabis to treat a variety of sexual dysfunctions, including low libido and premature ejaculation. Cannabis can be used to supercharge practices like Tantra and Taoist sexual arts, meditative sexual during which a person can build intense sexual energy to be used for healing and spiritual communion. But too much cannabis, according to Ayurveda, can deplete the ojas, or core vitality, and decrease sexual potency, especially if cannabis is not intentionally used to enhance sexuality.
From a practical standpoint, cannabis can enhance one’s sex-life if used correctly, but it can also interfere. Dosage is important – a small dose can be stimulating, while high doses may be too sedating or intoxicating to promote good sex. Animal and human studies also point to differences amongst genders, with females more consistently stimulated by cannabinoids, and males sometimes stimulated and sometimes inhibited. In addition to dry-mouth, cannabis also can dry the secretions of the vagina and decrease semen volume, a problem easily remedied by lubrication – perhaps cannabis infused coconut oil, as cannabinoids are also active locally in the penis and vagina, causing increased sensitivity and engorgement but reduced pain.
In Integr8 Health’s three clinics, which serve over 18,000 patients with real debilitating medical conditions who regularly use cannabis, we frequently hear reports of cannabis restoring and enhancing sexual capacity, for a variety of reasons. Reducing pain, forgetting trauma, relieving stress, bringing awareness into the present, permitting erection, and enhancing sensation are the most commonly reported mechanisms. Unlike Viagra, cannabis doesn’t have a single effect on physiology – it has broad effects on body and mind, and can be used to promote healing of the root of sexual dysfunction, as well as making the experience of sex better.
I have also noticed the shortage of recent human research on cannabinoids and sexuality, though the animal research is significant. As regulations and attitudes relax, and corporations stand to profit from cannabinoid products designed to enhance sex, I’m sure we’ll see a great expansion in this field.
By Dustin Sulak, DO
Rabinak, Christine A., et al. Cannabinoid facilitation of fear extinction memory recall in humans. Neuropharmacology (2012).
Das, Ravi K., et al. Cannabidiol enhances consolidation of explicit fear extinction in humans. Psychopharmacology (2013): 1-12.
Gilman, Jodi M., et al. Cannabis Use Is Quantitatively Associated with Nucleus Accumbens and Amygdala Abnormalities in Young Adult Recreational Users. The Journal of Neuroscience 34.16 (2014): 5529-5538.
Gorzalka, Boris B., Matthew N. Hill, and Sabrina CH Chang. Male-female differences in the effects of cannabinoids on sexual behavior and gonadal hormone function. Hormones and behavior 58.1 (2010): 91-99.