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What is a tolerance break and when are they useful?

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Contents

  1. What is cannabis tolerance?
  2. What are the benefits of a tolerance break?
  3. What are the side effects of a tolerance break?
  4. How do I take a tolerance break?
  5. How often should I take a tolerance break?

A tolerance break — sometimes called a T-break — is a deliberate, temporary cessation of cannabis consumption for the purpose of resetting the body’s tolerance to THC. Both medical and recreational cannabis users develop tolerance to THC with regular consumption, which can be reduced by taking tolerance breaks.

Both medical and recreational cannabis users develop tolerance to THC with regular consumption, which can be reduced by taking tolerance breaks. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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What is cannabis tolerance?

Tolerance is when the body acclimates to the effects of a substance or medication, when the substance is taken regularly . With repeated consumption, more of the substance is needed to achieve the original, desired effect. Like many other drugs and medicines, the human body develops tolerance when THC is consumed on a regular basis.

Scientists don’t fully understand the adaptations happening in our bodies when we experience tolerance; it’s a very complex phenomenon. However, brain imaging studies of people who use cannabis regularly have shown that chronic cannabis/THC use causes a decrease in the number of CB1 receptors across the brain. This means there are fewer sites available for THC to bind and activate the brain. The body’s natural system that interacts with cannabis — our endocannabinoid system (ECS) — is a very dynamic and responsive system. It’s no surprise that the ECS senses when it is being overwhelmed by THC, and compensates by becoming less sensitive. As a result, more THC (in the form of more frequent use or higher potency cannabis varieties) is required to achieve the same results as when you first started consuming.

Chronic THC use causes a decrease in the number of CB1 receptors across the brain. This means there are fewer sites available for THC to bind and activate the brain.

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While tolerance builds with continued, regular use, research is inconclusive on how long it takes to develop. Animal studies have suggested that females develop tolerance more rapidly than biological males, but this has been difficult to study in humans. The process is highly variable and depends on numerous factors such as consumption patterns, THC doses, routes of administration, and even our genetic makeup. The universal standard is, if you notice that you need to increase the amount of cannabis you’re using in order to feel its effects, you’ve built up a tolerance.

Tolerance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many medical patients wish to derive the benefits of THC (pain relief, for instance), but they have a hard time dealing with THC’s side effects of impairment and brain fog. Once a person develops a sufficient level of tolerance, it is possible to reap the medical benefits of cannabis in the absence of unwanted impairment. Anecdotally, patients have reported that when they are first starting out on cannabis therapy, they have success taking THC right before bed. By sleeping through the intoxication for a week or two, they are slowly able to incorporate small amounts of THC into their daytime routine, capturing medical benefits with minimal side effects.

What are the benefits of a tolerance break?

Tolerance breaks offer plentiful benefits with little effort. Moderating cannabis consumption by taking regular breaks is a good strategy for minimizing the risks of consuming too much THC. THC activates the CB1 receptors in the brain’s reward pathway, which triggers neurological responses that increase the likelihood a person will use cannabis again. While technically there’s nothing wrong with the fact that cannabis is a rewarding substance that makes people feel good, anything that creates the feeling of reward can be abused. Too much regular consumption can increase the risk of developing cannabis use disorder (CUD), and cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CH). A tolerance break mitigates the risk of developing these disorders by disrupting the body’s physical dependence on THC.

Taking a tolerance break also increases the effectiveness of cannabis on the body once you resume consumption. This means you get a more potent high (or more symptom relief) from less weed, which means less money spent in the long run.

Taking a tolerance break also increases the effectiveness of cannabis on the body once you resume consumption. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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What are the side effects of a tolerance break?

Chronic users of cannabis may experience some withdrawal symptoms when attempting a tolerance break. One study showed that nearly one-third of consumers report withdrawal symptoms when quitting after regular, long-time use. These symptoms are similar to nicotine withdrawal, and include irritability, decreased appetite, depressed mood, restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia. While side effects are more likely to occur for highly dependent users, cannabis withdrawal symptoms are typically mild and generally undisruptive.

For medical patients, the symptoms that are being treated with cannabis are likely to return during a period of cannabis abstinence. Temporarily switching to another medication, or using complementary and alternative therapies may be helpful during this time. Because medical patients are likely to be daily consumers of cannabis, they are particularly vulnerable to the risks of chronic cannabis use (such as hyperemesis). Managing tolerance is an important part of sustainable, long-term cannabis therapy.

How do I take a tolerance break?

It’s easy to take a tolerance break. Simply stop consuming cannabis for at least two days. Research demonstrates that CB1 receptor availability is diminished by chronic cannabis use. These receptors rapidly return to a cannabis-naive state after a mere 48 hours of abstinence. That’s to say, your tolerance should be back to normal after holding off from consuming for two days.

Some people may find this difficult to do, because they have come to rely on cannabis to make their daily lives more manageable or enjoyable. While cutting back the frequency or amount you consume (exercising moderation) is never a bad thing, it’s different than going cold-turkey and taking a true tolerance break to reset the body’s endocannabinoid system. Some people may find it helpful to taper down their use for a period of time before taking a true T-break for a few days.

Those who consume cannabis a few times per day may benefit from longer tolerance breaks, up to two weeks or even a month. However, the length of your tolerance break is entirely up to you. Determine what you want out of a tolerance break, give it a try, and see how your body feels. Everyone’s body interacts with cannabis and THC differently, and there’s no one-size-fits-all for tolerance breaks.

Everyone’s body interacts with cannabis and THC differently, and there’s no one-size-fits-all for tolerance breaks. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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Some consumers choose to take a tolerance break by replacing THC with CBD. Anecdotally, CBD seems to help mitigate the withdrawal symptoms that may occur with a tolerance break. However, there’s very little research available supporting this claim.

How often should I take a tolerance break?

Tolerance breaks have not been rigorously studied by doctors or scientists. However, some cannabis-centric physicians and patient advocate groups have suggested that taking a 48-hour break every 30 days is a good strategy for managing tolerance and preventing physical dependence.

Whether you are using cannabis to manage a chronic health condition, or simply enjoy having it as a part of your regular routine, there are good reasons to monitor and manage your intake, keeping your endocannabinoid system functioning at its best.

If you decide that it’s time for a tolerance break, it might be helpful to let your friends and loved ones know. Ask your friends to support you and, with their help, avoid situations that may challenge your commitment to a tolerance reset.

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How to Reset Your Cannabis Tolerance

Feel like cannabis isn’t working for you the way it used to? You might be dealing with a high tolerance.

Tolerance refers to your body’s process of getting used to cannabis, which can result in weaker effects.

In other words, you need to ingest more to get the same effects you once did. This can be particularly problematic if you’re using cannabis for medical reasons.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to reset your tolerance.

Cannabis tolerance develops when you use it regularly.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the psychoactive compound in cannabis. It works by affecting the cannabinoid type 1 (CB1) receptors in the brain.

If you ingest THC often, your CB1 receptors are reduced over time. This means the same amount of THC won’t affect the CB1 receptors in the same way, resulting in reduced effects.

There’s no strict timeline for how tolerance develops. It depends on a range of factors, including:

  • how often you use cannabis
  • how strong the cannabis is
  • your personal biology

One of the most common ways to lower your cannabis tolerance is to take a break from using cannabis. These are often called “T breaks.”

Research shows that, while THC can deplete your CB1 receptors, they can recover over time and return to their previous levels.

The length of your T break is up to you. There’s no solid data on exactly how long it takes for CB1 receptors to recover, so you’ll have to experiment a bit.

Some people find that a few days does the trick. Most online forums advise that 2 weeks is the ideal time frame.

If you’re using cannabis for medical reasons, taking a T break might not be feasible. There are a few other strategies you can try.

Use cannabis products with a higher CBD-to-THC ratio

Cannabidiol (CBD) is another chemical found in cannabis. It doesn’t seem to lead to depletion of CB1 receptors, meaning it doesn’t cause you to develop tolerance the way THC does.

CBD won’t give you a “high,” but it does seem to have several potential health benefits, such as reducing pain and inflammation.

At many dispensaries, you can find products ranging from a 1-to-1 ratio to as high as 16-to-1.

Tightly control your doses

The less cannabis you use, the less likely you are to develop a tolerance. Use the minimum you need to feel comfortable, and try not to overindulge.

Use cannabis less often

If possible, use cannabis less frequently. This can help to both reset your tolerance and prevent it from coming back again in the future.

Many people who have developed a high tolerance do go through cannabis withdrawal when taking a T break or using less cannabis than usual.

Cannabis withdrawal isn’t necessarily as intense as withdrawal from alcohol or other substances, but it can still be quite uncomfortable.

You might experience:

  • mood swings
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • cognitive impairment
  • diminished appetite
  • stomach problems, including nausea
  • insomnia
  • intense, vivid dreams

To help with these symptoms, make sure to get plenty of hydration and rest. You can also try using over-the-counter medications to deal with headaches and nausea.

Exercise and fresh air can help you feel alert and reduce any slumps in your mood.

The withdrawal symptoms might make it tempting to continue using cannabis. To keep yourself accountable, tell your loved ones that you’re taking a break.

While the symptoms are uncomfortable, the good news is that cannabis withdrawal symptoms usually only last for 72 hours.

Once you’ve reset your tolerance, keep the following in mind to keep your tolerance in check moving forward:

  • Use lower-THC products. Since it’s THC that leads to the depletion of your CB1 receptors, it’s wise to opt for products that are a bit lower in THC.
  • Don’t use cannabis too often. The more you use it, the higher your tolerance will be, so try to only use it occasionally or as needed.
  • Use a lower dosage. Try consuming less cannabis at a time, and try to wait a bit longer before re-dosing.
  • Use CBD instead. You may want to consider giving CBD-only products a try if you’re looking to reap the potential health benefits of cannabis. However, THC does have some benefits that CBD doesn’t seem to have, so this switch isn’t viable for everyone.

Keep in mind that tolerance might be unavoidable for some folks. If you find that you’re prone to developing a high tolerance, consider coming up with a plan to take regular T breaks as needed.

It’s pretty normal to develop a tolerance to cannabis if you use it often. In most cases, taking a T break for a week or two will reset your tolerance.

If that’s not an option, consider switching to products that are lower in THC or reducing your cannabis consumption.

Keep in mind that cannabis tolerance can sometimes be a sign of cannabis use disorder. If you’re concerned about your cannabis use, you have options:

  • Have an open and honest conversation with your healthcare provider.
  • Call SAMHSA’s national helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357), or use their online treatment locater.
  • Find a support group through the Support Group Project.

Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her writing covers issues relating to social justice, cannabis, and health. You can reach out to her on Twitter.

If you've been consuming weed for a while, you've probably developed a high tolerance along the way. Here's how to reset it and keep it from happening again.