Cannabis Tolerance, Part II: Tolerance Breaks

So, for one reason or another, you’ve decided it’s time to take a tolerance break. Great! But, wait… how long does it have to be? Will your tolerance go all the way down, back to where it was before you ever took your first hit? Will there be withdrawal symptoms? These are all the questions I asked before I started my own t-break. Keep reading for the answers.

The Science Behind Tolerance Breaks 

Cannabis Tolerance

On a physiological level, a tolerance break reverses the process that led to tolerance in the first place (detailed in part 1 of this article): over the course of the break, CB1 receptors emerge from inside the cells that previously internalized them, and then gradually re-sensitize themselves to THC. Studies have shown that a significant upregulation of CB1 receptors occurs after just two days of a t-break. After four weeks, CB1 receptor availability was very close to a normal, never-used-cannabis level.

Upregulation appears to be rapid, even in individuals who use cannabis extremely heavily. One study found that even in users who smoked an average of six joints per day for the last decade, upregulation after two days was substantial. After 28 days of abstinence, the study found no significant differences in CB1 availability between cannabis-dependent participants and non-user controls – however, even after those four weeks, CB1 availability didn’t quite reach the levels found in the control group. 

The study did not make any further measurements, so we don’t know whether or not CB1 upregulation continues past that point. It is theorized that while CB1 upregulation is rapid at first, it becomes more gradual as it approaches 100%. This doesn’t mean that a return to never-smoked-before tolerance levels won’t happen; it just means that beyond four weeks, progress is likely to be slower. Longer-term studies will be needed for us to know for sure.

I’m Taking a T-Break. How Long Should It Last?

Science Behind Tolerance Breaks

Users on Reddit and other forums suggested taking a t-break lasting anywhere from two days to six months, with enough variation in the numbers that they seemed more or less arbitrary. The overall trend seems to be that the longer you wait, the better – but only up to a certain point. After a few weeks, you’ll see rapidly diminishing returns. Excluding the odd, erroneous post, this trend mirrors the findings of the above-mentioned studies.

The ideal length of your t-break depends on what your goals are, how regularly you use cannabis, and how high you’d like to get after your break ends. If your goal is to get as high as possible, longer is better. However, considering that we don’t know what the CB1 receptor upregulation timeline looks like after the first 28 days, I can’t tell you what the maximum useful length of a break is.

If you are a regular user who enjoys frequent but moderate highs, a break of around two weeks is probably best. I say this because the difference in CB1 receptor availability between two weeks and four weeks is not as significant as the difference between one week and two. If cannabis is a much-loved part of your weekly routine, you may prefer to take shorter t-breaks more often – for example, two weeks off every three months, or two days off every two weeks. You can take breaks on an as-needed basis or take regular breaks on a schedule; either way, the “ideal” length of time is dependent on your individual needs, so the specifics are up to you.

Does Tolerance Rebuild More Quickly After your T-Break?

T-break & Cannabis Tolerance

While I was reading through forums like grasscity for other cannabis users’ advice about how long I should make my tolerance break, I noticed an alarming trend. Some users would write that they used to smoke every day for one or more years, to the point where their tolerance was so high that they couldn’t get high, and then take a t-break. Many of these users reported that even if they took a long tolerance break – more than a year, in a few cases – their highs didn’t quite reach the level they did the first few times, and within a few weeks their tolerance had shot right back up again. Does this mean that once you’ve built up a tolerance, it’s impossible to keep that tolerance down?

Unfortunately, my research hasn’t turned up any concrete information, but I’ve heard some theories. The EC system downregulates its CB1 receptors to maintain an equilibrium: if the body is constantly being flooded with phytocannabinoids, it learns not to overproduce endocannabinoids. It’s possible that even after a tolerance break, the EC system “remembers” what it had to do to reach that equilibrium during your periods of heavy cannabis use, and compensates more quickly and decisively. 

On the other hand, this quick rebuilding of tolerance could be entirely due to user error – if a user starts off with zero tolerance and works their way up to six joints a day, it’s entirely possible that they simply get used to that amount of cannabis. Perhaps after a tolerance break, they go back to old habits and old levels of consumption, overshooting the amounts that they actually “need” and rebuilding their tolerance much more quickly than is necessary.

Both of these are possibilities, but neither has been substantiated by science at this point. Hopefully, as time goes on, more studies will be conducted to give us a clearer idea of the timeline of cannabis tolerance development, reversal, and redevelopment. In the meantime, make sure that you don’t overdo it when you come back from a tolerance break! Take a hit or two, wait, and then decide if you want to keep going. 

Are My “Virgin” Highs Gone for Good?

Tolerance Rebuild

One of the first times I smoked cannabis, I didn’t even know that I was supposed to grind it. I put a pea-sized nug in my tiny pipe, smoked half of it, and then laid on my living room floor with my eyes closed. I felt like different pieces of my body were enclosed in various soap bubbles, floating away in all directions through some strange non-physical space. I liked it.

At this point, it’s been quite a while since I’ve had an experience that strange. On one hand, that’s a good thing. I’m still a little embarrassed about the time I took a too-long hit from a dab pen while playing cards with friends, and had to explain to my then-girlfriend that she needed to help hold my head up since gravity had started going sideways instead of down. On the other hand, it was a lot of fun to experience something so novel… So, some of the comments I read on internet forums claiming that those “virgin highs” never came back, even after a long t-break, had me a little worried.

Is that semi-psychedelic type of high gone forever? I wasn’t able to find any studies that answered that question, but now that I’ve finished my own two-week break, I can answer from experience: no, they’re definitely still here. I worried that those times were over, and made my peace with the idea, and then spent the half hour immediately after my first bowl back laying on my couch and watching strange, glowing patterns draw and re-draw themselves behind my closed eyelids. It wasn’t the same experience as the first time – no two highs are exactly alike – but it was every bit as intense as the first time ever. Of course, this may vary from one person to another, so I can’t speak for everyone… but if I were you, I wouldn’t worry.

Will I Experience Withdrawal Symptoms During a T-Break?

Cannabis smoking

The question “is cannabis addictive?” is complicated, and the answer varies depending on how you define the terms “addiction” and “dependence,” and on whether you’re asking an average consumer or a medical professional. In any case, I’m not going to get into that distinction here. What you need to know now is yes, quitting cannabis can cause some withdrawal symptoms, especially if you are a regular, heavy user.

Fortunately, those symptoms are minor and short-lived – more on the level of caffeine withdrawal than anything else. You won’t be sweating, shaking, and considering selling your prized possessions so you can score some more weed. You might not even have severe cravings. However, for the first few days of a tolerance break you may experience:

  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Decreased appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Vivid dreams

The endocannabinoid plays a role in balancing many of the body’s systems and functions. THC and other cannabinoids found in cannabis temporarily replace the body’s endocannabinoids during periods of regular use, and it takes some time for the body to adjust to the absence of cannabis and re-balance itself. That’s what causes the symptoms of cannabis withdrawal. It only lasts a few days, though, and usually peaks on day 2 of a t-break.

In the meantime, you can take an ibuprofen for the headache, and some melatonin to help you sleep. The dreams are one symptom that you’ll just have to deal with. For some users, bad dreams may feel worse since they’ll be more vivid and complex. If you enjoy dreaming, though, this could be a positive effect! It might also be a good time to start a dream journal or try other methods of developing lucid dreaming abilities.

Tolerance breaks are the quickest and simplest way to reset a THC tolerance, even if they aren’t always the easiest or most comfortable. Two days is effective, two weeks will bring your tolerance down to pretty much normal, and four weeks should put you close to zero. 

All of the above information deals specifically with THC tolerance. For information on CBD’s role in cannabis tolerance, continue on to part 3 of this article series.

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