What is Cottonmouth and Why Does it Happen?

Published on May 17, 2016, By Chelsea Maher

Marijuana News

It can strike any time. It can happen to anyone. It’s probably the only thing in the world that can make consuming cannabis less enjoyable, besides getting busted by your parents for smoking in the house.

It is… cottonmouth.

Cottonmouth, also known as “the pasties” or simply dry mouth, has been a thing since the very first human sparked up. For years, many thought this uncomfortable condition was caused by inhaling hot smoke into the mouth and lungs.

It’s only recently that we’ve realized this cannot be the cause, given that people who consume cannabis by vaping, dabbing, or enjoying edibles are just as prone to cottonmouth as those who smoke. Regardless of your preferred method of consumption, if you get high you’re almost certainly going to get cottonmouth.

Just light up some dank bud and within minutes your mouth feels like it’s a desert filled with cotton balls. Granted, of all the ways you can get dry mouth, smoking weed is probably not the worst. Still, even the most veteran toker will tell you that it’s unpleasant to say the least.

It’s a mystery that has left both experienced smokers and novices asking the same simple question for years: WHY!?

Understanding Spit

So you want to understand why cottonmouth happens. Great. We’re glad you asked! First, you’ll need a lesson in the importance of spit.

Spit, or saliva as it’s called in the scientific community, is mostly water. In addition to H2O, saliva is also made up of electrolytes, mucus, enzymes, and a few antibacterial compounds. There are three pairs of glands in your body that make and secrete saliva: the parotid, sublingual, and submandibular glands.

Without saliva, we wouldn’t be able to eat anything. It’s a digestive aid that also lubricates food as it travels from the mouth, down the esophagus, and into the stomach. Remember those enzymes we mentioned? They exist so that saliva can effectively break down the fats and starches in our food, making them easier for our stomachs to handle.

That’s why having sufficient amounts of spit is important, especially to a stoner, because there’s only one thing that cannabis is more infamous for than cottonmouth – and that is the munchies.

Ah yes, the dreaded munchies. Not so bad if you’re a food lover, but definitely a dieting smoker’s worst nightmare. And what kind of food do we primarily crave when we have a raging case of the munchies? You guessed it! Starches and fats.

If you don’t produce saliva, your tasty snacks may make it from your mouth to your stomach, but it won’t be easy. And, once they get there, your stomach is going to have a much tougher time digesting them. Got it?

Now that you understand the importance of spit’s role in our lives, we can delve deeper into why saliva production is halted when using cannabis.

What the Research Says

So what causes cottonmouth? Well, we aren’t the only ones who have asked this question. In fact, researchers in Argentina have been studying cottonmouth at the University of Buenos Aires since 2006.

Surprisingly, it’s pretty simple. From what they’ve found, it all goes back to those submandibular glands (SMG). Since our bodies make cannabinoids on their own, we have cannabinoid receptors located throughout the body. The SMGs just happen to be home to two types of these cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2 receptors.

These glands are responsible for making about 70% of the saliva we produce. And where are these glands located? Right on the floor of your mouth.

That’s right. Every time you ingest cannabis, the cannabinoid receptors in the SMGs latch on to the THC. This causes the SMGs to stop receiving the messages from the parasympathetic nervous system that tells them to produce saliva. The end result is the dry mouth feeling we’ve so affectionately dubbed as cottonmouth.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Cottonmouth

Now that we’ve given you a lesson in Saliva 101 and explained how cottonmouth works, you’re probably thinking, “That’s all good and well, but what can I do to ward off cottonmouth?”

The answer is twofold in that there are things you can do to help lessen the effects of cottonmouth, and things you should avoid that will exacerbate the sensation. We’ll start with what you don’t want to do when you’re experiencing cottonmouth:

  • Don’t drink sugary drinks like soda or juice. These can dehydrate you, especially if they’re caffeinated. If you want something on the sweet side, try a sugar free alternative or use honey to sweeten up some iced tea.
  • Don’t use tobacco. Doesn’t matter if it’s cigarettes, chew, or pipe tobacco – they all dry your mouth out.
  • Don’t drink alcohol. Booze is another fluid that dehydrates your entire body and will only make cottonmouth worse. Even alcohol with a high water content, such as beer, will dry you out.
  • Don’t consume drinks high in tannins. This includes wine as well as certain kinds of tea and juice. Tannins have an astringent effect on the body which can lead to dry mouth.

Remember: everyone’s body is different. What works for some people may not work for others. So when it comes to curing cottonmouth, it’s all about finding the method that works best for you. If you find yourself in the middle of a bout of cottonmouth, here are a few things you can try that might help relieve the discomfort:

  • Do drink plenty of water while consuming cannabis. Downing an entire gallon at once isn’t going to help, but taking a sip or two every few minutes will at least keep your mouth feeling moist.
  • Do chew sugarless gum. Chewing gum promotes saliva production because it tricks your body into thinking you’re eating. It also keeps your teeth clean and can help take any unpleasant tastes out of your mouth.
  • Do have a glass of milk. This one is still a little contested. The high fat content of milk coats your throat and mouth nicely, but it’s commonly known to cause an overproduction of mucus, which isn’t necessarily what you want. If you find this method does work for you, brush your teeth afterwards to cut down on the potential for mucus.
  • Do munch on some crushed ice. It’s a good way to keep water in your mouth, make it feel cooler, and distract you from the cottonmouth feeling. You can even add some lemon or lime juice to it to make it even tastier!
  • Do suck on some hard candy. These also stimulate saliva production, plus they taste great. Again, just try to stay away from sugary options and instead go with some sugar free lifesavers or suckers.
  • Do consider a mouthwash. These aren’t always pleasant, and they may not work for everyone, but it could be worth a shot. Just be sure to stay away from those that contain alcohol.

There is one upside to cottonmouth. The research that lead to the discovery that cannabis inhibits saliva production might provide scientists with an advantage when it comes to studying chronic conditions that cause altered saliva production. It may also provide a way for scientists to help those who experience an overproduction of saliva.

Who knows, maybe one day they’ll figure out a way to use cannabis to keep us from drooling on our pillows at night. Personally, I’m convinced that cannabis can be used for more things than we can possibly imagine. The best is yet to come folks, and we’re just getting started.

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