John Maltese (not his real name) was one of the premier bodybuilders of the mid-to-late 1960s. Although he did use drugs, such as anabolic steroids, to win many of his titles, later in his career he disavowed the use of most drugs with one notable exception. Maltese had a preworkout ritual that he claimed allowed him to train more intensely and concentrate more effectively throughout his training session.
What was his secret? The enigmatic root of his preworkout ritual became evident one day in the back room of a popular Southern California bodybuilding gym. This particular gym had a sauna that was never used, located in the back of the men’s locker room. It was the perfect place to engage in surreptitious behavior. What Maltese couldn’t conceal, however, was the pungent marijuana fumes.
Maltese smoked marijuana in that room. And he didn’t just puff on one “joint,” or marijuana cigarette, either. No, Maltese regularly engaged in a marijuana trip, losing his thoughts in the wispy smoke that rose slowly toward the ceiling in his secret alcove. He would emerge after an hour or so and head directly to the gym floor, working out with no apparent ill effects.
Although marijuana is an illegal drug, many athletes, not just bodybuilders, regularly smoke “weed” as a means of relaxation and mind expansion. A long-held tenet of the drug culture is that marijuana emphasizes the mood you’re already in. Thus, if you feel good, you’ll feel even better after the intoxicating effects of THC, the active component of pot, does its job on your brain.
While marijuana has always had a relatively innocuous reputation compared to other mind drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, few people are aware of its true effects on the body. Entire volumes have been written documenting the physiological effects of marijuana, but many people are still confused.
Known to botanists as Cannabis sativa, more than 100 species of the cannabis plant, also known as marijuana and hemp, grow wild throughout the world in temperate climates. Analysis of the plant yields 460 compounds, of which 60 are cannabinoids, but the only cannabinoid known to have psychoactive effects is delta-9-THC. That’s the ingredient that makes you feel high. Not long ago scientists discovered nerve receptors in the brain that are specifically affected by THC, which suggests that the body produces its own natural form of THC.
Different parts of the marijuana plant have different THC contents. The bracts, flowers and leaves contain the most, while the stems, seeds and roots contain lesser amounts. The most concentrated form of all, however, is hash oil, which is the distilled liquid resin of the female marijuana plant. Street pot has gradually increased in potency over the years, and current versions are thought to be five to 10 times more potent than the stuff people used to “tune in and turn on” in the ‘60s.
When inhaled, as from a “reefer, or joint, THC is rapidly absorbed. Studies show the systemic bio-availability of THC following smoking is about 18 percent, with heavier users absorbing more than casual smokers. That compares with the oral uptake, from, say, a pill, of only 6 percent. The peak effects of the drug occur within 20 to 30 minutes and last for two to four hours.
THC circulates through the body and, being highly fat-soluble, easily enters the brain. About 80 to 90 percent of an intravenous dose of THC is excreted from the body in five days, although metabolites remain detectable in urine for 10 days after a single dose and more than 20 days after chronic use. Due to its proclivity for storage in fatty tissues of the body, in some cases THC may take up to a month to be eliminated.
How marijuana affects a person varies from individual to individual. A recent study funded by the United States National Institute on Drug Abuse involving identical twins found that the likelihood that you’ll find pot enjoyable has a genetic basis. What’s more, the effects can vary in the same person.
A 1970 medical review of marijuana described the typical effects:
“Typically, the user feels a series of jittery ‘rushes’ soon after inhaling. A sense of relaxation and well-being follows. There is awareness of being intoxicated not unlike that produced by alcohol. The user becomes acutely conscious of certain stimuli to the extent that his whole attention is focused, immersed and at times lost with the sensory experience. In this state jokes are funnier, misfortunes more poignant and human relations more deeply perceived.
“The appreciation of food, sex and, in particular, music is intensified. The user may believe that his thoughts are unusually profound (an impression rarely shared by observers). Paranoid thoughts and feelings of depersonalization have been reported by subjects and observed in the laboratory. Visual imagery is increased, and in larger doses colors may shimmer and visual distortions occur. There are feelings of changed body proportion. Among the most striking perceptual changes is the subjective slowing of time.”
At least two effects rapidly occur in most people who smoke marijuana: The eyes redden, and the heart beats faster. This increased load on the heart tends to impede athletic performance, as shown in some studies. This occurs because, while pot speeds the heart, the cardiac stroke volume, or amount of blood pumped by the heart, decreases. One study showed that in men cycling against increasing workloads, pot decreased exercise performance.
Another study showed that when 161 men and women took THC, they experienced a general drop in standing steadiness, simple and complex reaction times, and other athletic skills. Contrary to the experience of the bodybuilder described above, if anything, pot decreases training concentration and focus, an effect so potent that it can’t even be overcome with concomitant amphetamine usage.
A crucial question from a bodybuilding perspective is, How does smoking pot affect anabolic hormones, such as testosterone?
Marijuana and Testosterone
A brief report concerning the appearance in gynecomastia in three male pot smokers published in 1972 sparked a number of subsequent studies that examined the relationship between marijuana use and testosterone levels. Gynecomastia, or “male breasts,” however, is not a common side effect encountered with marijuana use.
Instead, the condition is usually the result of an imbalance between testosterone and estrogen in men, with something causing an increase in the latter. Since marijuana has no estrogenic activity, it isn’t likely to cause this condition.
Even so, animal studies clearly point to an inhibitory effect of marijuana on both testosterone and luteinizing hormone (LH) production. LH is the pituitary hormone that governs endogenous testosterone synthesis in men. When it comes to humans, though, things are far less clear.
Most studies that have examined human marijuana use haven’t shown any significant effect on testosterone levels in normal men. A 1983 study, however, did find depressed testosterone levels after subjects smoked just one joint, with the effect lasting 24 hours. A 1984 study found that pot not only inhibited testosterone but also lowered prolactin, thyroid and growth hormone. It did that by altering the expression of brain substances that govern hormone release.
Nevertheless, a 1989 study gave 17 male volunteers both high and low doses of THC and then tested their hormonal responses. The results showed no hormonal or immune parameters affected by either a high or low dose of THC. Notably, both testosterone and cortisol were examined, indicating that pot doesn’t produce catabolic effects in muscle through increased cortisol release.
Based on the majority of studies that have looked at the effects of pot on testosterone levels, it appears that the drug has little or no effect on this hormone in humans. One study that examined Jamaican pot smokers, however, did find a significant decrease in active thyroid hormone in the blood, although the men showed no apparent thyroid dysfunction. Significantly, the men also showed normal testosterone levels despite smoking an average of seven to eight joints a day.
Other Health Effects of Marijuana
The recent passage of Proposition 215 in California and Proposition 200 in Arizona, both of which allow use of marijuana under medical supervision, has brought public attention to the health benefits (or lack thereof) of marijuana. This prompted the National Institutes of Health to convene a committee to study the medical benefits of pot.
The committee looked at marijuana’s effects on at least three medical conditions: glaucoma; wasting diseases, such as those occurring with HIV infection; and the nausea common with cancer chemotherapy. It concluded that more study is needed to determine the effectiveness of using pot to treat those and other disease states.
What’s interesting here is that legally, marijuana is classified as a schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act. That means it has no medical value and may be addictive. Yet in 1985 the Food and Drug Administration approved a synthetic version of THC called dronabinol (trade name Marinol) as a schedule 2 drug used to treat the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. In 1992 the FDA also approved Marinol for use in treating the wasting syndrome associated with AIDS.
Marijuana, or more specifically THC, does affect many body systems. Here’s a brief review of its effects:
Immune system - Several test-tube studies of both animal and human tissue samples suggest that marijuana may inhibit cell-mediated immune functions. That has to do with the response of specialized immune cells called T cells that protect against viruses and cancers.
Other studies on this aspect, however, suggest that any immune dysfunction induced by marijuana is transitory. In addition, the immune problem caused by marijuana isn’t sufficient to overcome other immune systems of the body. This is still a debatable issue, though, as evidenced by a 1990 study published in the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Weekly. That study found THC suppresses the normal growth of white blood cells and thus may impair immunity in some people.
Chromosome damage - Some studies show that THC may cause chromosome damage, leading to things like birth defects. Other studies dispute this, however, with the result that most scientists studying this issue feel that any chromosome damage caused by marijuana use is insignificant. Nevertheless, pregnant women are advised to avoid using any form of the drug to prevent any possibility of birth defects.
Mental reaction - As noted earlier, taken in excess, marijuana can induce such symptoms as panic reactions, paranoia and mania. When studies are produced to prove the concept of “reefer madness,” however, it turns out that in most cases people experiencing adverse mental problems after using marijuana had preexisting mental problems. Other studies show that marijuana does not predispose people to violence.
A controversial topic related to marijuana use among younger people is its effects on memory and learning. This is also related to the increased potency of marijuana in recent years. For example, in a study that looked at short- and long-term memory functions in both pot-using and abstaining teenagers, the pot users showed defects in short-term memory that would have a negative effect on learning.
A 1996 study looked at the mental effects of marijuana in college students. The subjects included 65 heavy and 64 light pot users who had smoked it for at least two years. The results showed that heavy users had trouble paying attention and performing mental tasks even after a day of not smoking. In an editorial that accompanied the study, however, another researcher noted, “The few reports of cognitive effects of marijuana lingering on the day after smoking have not proven reliably reproducible even by the original researchers.”
More problematic are so-called additives that may be found in pot. Sources of contamination can include insects, fungi and in Mexican pot a herbicide called paraquat that can cause lung damage. A 1989 report in the journal Bioscience found that pot grown in Hawaii (called “pakalolo”) was high in the toxic metal mercury. Ingestion of mercury can lead to such brain defects as forgetfulness, anxiety and paranoia.
Oral absorption of mercury from food sources, such as fish, is only 7 to 10 percent as efficient as that absorbed from the lungs, and the body retains only 7 percent of ingested mercury. That’s in contrast to the 85 percent absorption of mercury vapors from smoking. It takes about three months for mercury to clear body tissues once absorbed, although the nutrients vitamin C and selenium block mercury absorption and detoxify it.
A so-called amotivational syndrome is closely associated with pot use. In simple terms, that means regular pot users get so lazy, they don’t want to do anything except smoke. Once again, in many cases a preexisting mental depression causes some people to turn to pot for relief. Studies conducted among workers in Costa Rica and Jamaica failed to find any apathy or laziness even among heavy cannabis users.
Marijuana, contrary to earlier reports, does not appear to cause brain damage. Although it’s been accused of causing brain atrophy, or shrinking of the brain, newer studies on the effects of pot in even heavy users failed to find this effect.
Lung function - Studies that looked at the effects of marijuana show paradoxical effects. Thus, some studies show that the drug dilates breathing passages in the lungs, while others point to a significant degree of airway obstruction. Smoking pot yields more tar than cigarettes, and a 1988 University of California at Los Angeles study found that smoking pot releases five times as much carbon monoxide into the blood, which ties up oxygen, and three times more tar than cigarettes. Another study showed that three to four joints a day can produce as much lung damage as 20 tobacco cigarettes.
According to Kasi Sridhar, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Miami, smoking marijuana is 100 to 200 times more likely to cause lung cancer than cigarettes. Sridhar believes the increasing incidence of lung cancer in younger people may be due to increased pot use.
Other studies show that pot promotes bronchitis and impaired pulmonary defenses against infection. The tar produced from marijuana smoke contains 50 percent more carcinogens than unfiltered Kentucky tobacco. The fact that pot smokers inhale the smoke 40 percent deeper than cigarette smokers (except, of course, President Clinton) adds to the problem. One study found that smoking just one joint diminished vital capacity in a manner comparable to that produced by smoking 16 tobacco cigarettes.
If all this still doesn’t convince you that its use isn’t so innocuous, how about marijuana as a fat stimulator? Pot has long been known to cause a peculiar sensation known as “the munchies,” in which you have an insatiable desire for junk food after smoking, and it turns out the effect isn’t just folklore.
A study done at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine looked at the appetite effects of marijuana on six men for 13 days. On some days the men smoked two joints in the morning and another two in the afternoon. On other days they smoked placebo joints, which didn’t contain THC. The men ate three meals a day, but also had unlimited access to candy bars, potato chips, soda and other junk foods.
On the days the men smoked the genuine pot, they ate no additional food at meals but ate enough snacks to consume 40 percent more calories than they ate on placebo days. That led to a six-pound weight gain after 13 days, which was quickly lost when they ceased getting high. The men were also less active on pot days and thus also burned fewer calories.
When you add it all up, even overlooking the fact that marijuana is an illegal drug, this weed has little or nothing to offer bodybuilders or anyone else seeking maximum health and fitness.