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Cannabis & Cottonmouth

A cannabis bud in a red lipsticked mouth

One of the tell-tale signs often associated with cannabis use, is when your mouth feels so dry that drinking a glass of water seems to make no difference at all. The term, cottonmouth is often associated as a side effect of cannabis usage causing the patient to experience dryness of the throat and mouth. But, what’s the cause of that occurrence?

Many cannabis consumers believe it’s the harshness of smoke that causes the dry sensation. However, desert mouth or xerostomia as its technically called, can occur from all methods of cannabis intake. It’s also worth noting that xerostomia is not a specific medical condition. It’s merely a symptom or sensation which describes when a mouth and/or throat feel dry. Xerostomia can also occur in animals and humans for a variety of reasons. But, for now we’re specifically exploring cannabis use and why it sometimes leaves us unquenchably thirsty.

Upon further examination, the answer lies within our own endocannabinoid system and more specifically our CB1 receptors which interact with THC. In the brain our CB1 receptors bind to THC producing effects such as euphoria, pain relief and relaxation. 

However, our bodies also contain CB1 receptors in the salivary glands of your mouth. Convincing evidence from prior studies suggest that when THC binds to the CB1 receptors in salivary glands it “effectively causes them to chill out and stop lubricating as regularly and consistently,” says Dr. Benjamin Caplan, MD, Founder and Chief Medical Officer of CED Clinic and CED Foundation.

It’s also believed this phenomenon of decreased saliva production occurs in a dose-dependent manner, meaning the more THC, the less salivation. Evidence also suggests that cottonmouth mirrors the onset, peak, and duration of cannabis consumption.  For example, as opposed to vaping or smoking THC, ingesting it generally produces a delayed yet prolonged effect to the user. Therefore, the dry mouth effect with ingestibles is also often delayed, but for a longer period.

Dr. Caplan has also observed that new users to cannabis often experience cottonmouth more than experienced users. He believes that just like tolerance, the symptom often wanes over time. So, if CB1 receptors in the salivary glands perform this way when bound to THC molecules, what occurs when THC binds to CB1 receptors in our eyes?

This same theory also provides an explanation for dry eyes during the peak moments of cannabis effects. The CB1 receptors in our eyes that are responsible for tear production and lubrication also ‘relax’ when interacting with THC and may lead to your eyes becoming dry.

Are any of these side effects dangerous to the user? The answer is no, not generally. Although these symptoms may be unpleasant there is no imminent danger per se. Dry eyes can be relieved with eye drops, and having a dry mouth is not synonymous with being in a state of dehydration. But it’s worth noting that saliva production does benefit our oral hygiene by protecting the teeth and mouth from bacteria. Bacterial growth can lead to tooth decay, gum disease, and bad breath. Of course, flossing, brushing and rinsing one’s teeth with mouthwash are also great combatants to bacteria.

So, are there any remedies to cottonmouth? 

Yes, absolutely. Obviously, abstinence from cannabis will do the trick. But if the patient finds its benefits outweigh the pesky nuisance of a dry mouth, there are a couple tricks that can make this experience less of an annoyance. Sugar-free candy and chewing gum often induce salivation. Also, foods or drinks with carbonation or higher acidity will generate saliva. This is our body’s natural response to protect tooth enamel and the digestive system from corrosion.

Staying hydrated is always recommended, especially when it comes to having a dry mouth. Minimizing caffeine, sugar, and alcohol consumption is also recommended as these substances can also dehydrate the body. So, if you experience a wicked case of cottonmouth, eating a piece of mango or enjoying a cool glass of lemonade or sparkling water with a lime wedge – might be just what the doctor ordered.


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