The conventional wisdom is that cannabis adversely affects short and long-term cognitive function. However, accumulating evidence suggest several cannabinoids — including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) — are actually neuroprotective. Meaning, they protect cognitive function. The catch is that THC is actually biphasic: low to moderate doses exert neuroprotective effects, while the opposite holds true for chronic consumption at high doses.
But, what about acute effects? With rare exception, studies suggest that (in most users) cannabis affects coordination, reaction time, verbal recall, executive functioning, and short-term memory. Notably, immediately after consumption, regular cannabis users seem to experience fewer short-term cognitive impairments than occasional users (suggesting regular users gradually acclimate to effects). Moreover, evidence suggests CBD — the most prominent non-psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — reduces the memory-impairing effects of THC.
But, given what the evidence says, how in the world could cannabis help focus?
Your Chemistry Counts
It’s been well-established that some people with ADHD self-medicate with cannabis, believing it helps them focus. While there aren’t a lot of physicians who recommend cannabis for ADHD, the few that do claim cannabis can help (some) people reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity, thereby increasing focus. Predictably, many people who haven’t been formally diagnosed with ADHD also claim cannabis helps them focus.
A few case studies and at least one small study provide evidence that in some people cannabis may improve concentration. A 2015 study from Germany evaluated the effects of cannabis on 30 patients who did not derive significant benefit from Adderall or Ritalin (two of the most commonly prescribed stimulant medications for ADHD). Remarkably, according to the lead investigators, all participants in the study reported a decrease in impulsivity along with an improvement in concentration and sleep. But, this may come down to personal chemistry. After all, these were patients who did not respond to stimulants.
Researchers concluded: “For adult patients with ADHD, who experience side effects or do not profit from standard medication, cannabis may be an effective and well-tolerated alternative.” Dr. Eva Milz, a psychiatrist who co-authored the study, reported cannabis provided them “control that helped them in life, love and work, without feeling intoxicated.”
Dr. David Bearman, a doctor from Santa Barbara, California who treats many of his ADHD patients with cannabis claims some people may have difficulty focusing because of a (recently characterized) condition called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD), whereby they are deficient in endocannabinoids (the body’s naturally occurring cannabinoids).
According to Bearman, if you have are endocannabinoid deficient and supplement with cannabinoids, “you’re likely to slow down the speed of neurotransmitters and you’re going to give the brain a little bit more time to concentrate and focus.” But, beware! If you overdo it, you’re likely to produce the opposite effects.
For Best Results, Try Microdosing
For years, cannabis was viewed as an inebriant. People consumed cannabis to get “high.” However, as cannabis has gained respect for its therapeutic versatility it has become less taboo. As it’s come out of the shadows for recreational and medicinal purposes, increasingly people are looking at cannabis for a third use: wellness and life enhancement. Intoxication is out. Enhancement is in. Say “hello” to microdosing!
Instead of a few hits, microdosing usually involves ingesting a small amount from a vape or one-hitter. Fans of microdosing claims it helps spark their creative juices and focus better without feeling “stoned.”
Dr. Milz, who co-authored the ADHD study agrees, noting that a relatively low dose of cannabis with low THC content seems to help patients best. Likewise, evidence suggests CBD — non psychoactive — can calm your nerves, help you relax, and increase concentration without feeling inebriated.
Cannapreneur, Max Simon of Green Flower Media, has long been a fan of microdosing. He reports having used cannabis for many years to treat his ADHD, but continually watches his intake in order to maintain a productive lifestyle.
“What I’ve realized about myself is that I am strongly affected by cannabis if I take too much,” says Simon. “Sure that can be an enjoyable psychoactive experience, but in terms of using it medicinally I realized that taking much smaller doses than anybody else talks about is more ideal for me.”
Max is a fan of taking a micro-hit or two from his vape pen a couple times over the day which he credits for helping him settle down and focus more effectively.
Pick the Right Strain
You’re likely aware cannabis strains are generally characterized as either indica or sativa-dominant. Sativa-dominant strains are generally more popular for those who want to be productive. Indica-dominant strains are more likely to produce a heavy body-high. Interestingly, contrary to what you may have heard, the reason Indica-dominant strains produce their signature effects is not because they have higher concentrations of THC. After all, there are plenty of sativas with off-the-charts THC — ever heard of Lemon OG Haze with more than 25% THC? Likewise, there are plenty of Indica-dominant strains with low THC. Pennywise, for example, is a 70-30 Indica-dominant strain that has single digit THC, and double digit CBD content.
The more plausible reason Indica-dominant strains produce a heavier, more sedative high is because of a terpenoid called myrcene. Myrcene helps THC cross the blood-brain barrier more effectively, thus its proclivity in promoting couch-lock.
So broadly speaking, if you’re looking to be productive, while maintaining focus, sativas are generally going to be your best bet. But, some some Indicas can produce calming effects that users report “quiet the noise in their head.”
Keep in mind, every strain is unique in chemical composition and various cannabinoids and terpenoids come into play. So beyond just looking for a Sativa (or Indica), there are certain strains that are popular for promoting concentration. Cinex is a popular Sativa known for increasing productivity, while aiding focus on specific tasks. However, some people have reported Cinex actually gives them racing thoughts. Sour Diesel is another strain that is popular among those who look to cannabis to treat ADHD. But, again, dosing is key. Low doses are likely to produce the effects you want, while high doses will do just the opposite.
Many people report high CBD strains work best for focus. Important research continues to emerge suggesting CBD is powerful anti-anxiety agent that can acutely relieve stress and even help people overcome social anxiety. Unsurprisingly, high CBD strains (and tinctures) are becoming increasingly popular for people who are looking for a little help focusing. Strains like Ozma, with its sky high CBD, and low THC is popular strain because of its potent stress and anxiety relieving effects that promote focus, while producing minimal psychotropic effects.
Improving focus and concentration isn’t usually the first thing people associate with cannabis consumption. The very notion runs contrary to most studies that find cannabis produces acute effects that would cause a person to be less focused. However, that’s not always the case. Not only does everyone react differently, but every strain produces slightly different effects. Therefore, if you’re looking for a boost in focus and concentration, keep the following in mind:
Chemistry is key: Be conscious of you react to different strains. Everyone’s chemistry is different. What may work for someone else, may not work for you.
Less is more! Focus and inebriation are diametrically opposed. If you want to feel focused, try microdosing.
Pick the right strain: Different strains will affect you differently. Try a few different types of strains with varying cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles. You may find an Indica-dominant strain works best, or maybe it’s a Sativa-dominant. Maybe 1:1 THC:CBD; or you might find you prefer high CBD or high THC? It may take a little trial and error.
Have you found a particular strategy or a favorite strain to help you focus? Share your insights in the comments below.