Know Your Roots Blog: Plants and Mental Health, Pt. 1: Natural is Not Always Better

Leigh Berry, Reporter

A lot of times, the conversation about drugs like nicotine, THC and opium (all plant-based) centers around the outward effects of these substances — sores, cysts, cancer, physical decay — or what mental illnesses can cause the drugs’ allure. But it is equally as important to focus on where they come from and what effects they have on your mental wellbeing in order to truly understand the full impact these mind altering, plant-derived drugs can have. 


You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard that smoking causes lung cancer, but what else does it do? Nicotine is derived from the Nicotiana genus of plants, or as they are more commonly known, tobacco plants. Nicotine works by targeting parts of the brain and body containing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and its receptor. Acetylcholine activates pain responses, regulates REM sleep and hormone functions and causes muscle contractions. By binding to acetylcholine receptors, nicotine directly affects the areas of the brain in charge of emotional and cognitive processing, altering normal brain function. Attention and memory problems are extremely common in long-term smokers and along with those comes reduced impulse control. People who smoke cigarettes, especially younger kids or teenagers, have a harder time focusing on specific tasks and this often hinders performance in school and work and can even affect personal relationships. 


Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is found in Cannabis plants (i.e. marijuana/weed) and is probably one of the most common and socially accepted drugs next to nicotine. A lot of people use medical marijuana to help cope with things like chronic pain, some forms of epilepsy and most importantly for what I’m focussing on today, anxiety. 

It’s safe to say that the vast majority of people smoke weed for recreational purposes. However, THC is not the compound in marijuana that has those anxiety reducing properties —  that’s cannabidiol (CBD). The problem with just taking CBD supplements is that you don’t get the high so many people are chasing and many people disregard THC’s more counter acting properties in exchange for that feeling. THC in high doses increases anxiety and completely cancels out CBD’s effect, as well as increasing paranoia. Some studies have linked THC to psychosis, depression and other substance abuse, however, since a lot of the research on THC’s long term effects is fairly new, it’s hard to tell whether THC caused these issues, heightened these issues, or was simply a coping mechanism for people already struggling with underlying mental health problems. 


Without a doubt, opium is the most dangerous of the substances I’ve mentioned in this post. Opiates and Opioids are highly addictive and, unfortunately, many addicts begin with prescription pills from post surgery or some other medical ailment that drives them to need pain medication. Opium comes from the unripened seeds of Papaver somniferum — poppy flowers. It works by targeting the midbrain reward system in the ventral tegmental area (VTG), causing the overproduction and release of dopamine into the rest of the brain. People who are addicted to opiates or opioids quickly develop a tolerance and dependence on these drugs that is so strong it inhibits feedback from the prefrontal cortex that prevents the brain from finding gratification in dangerous or reckless activities, but addiction is not all that comes with opium use. 

Addicts suffer from a variety of side effects including perpetual drowsiness, confusion, moodswings, apathy, memory loss, withdrawal and depression. The problem with these effects, and the reason they can’t be ignored for the high, is that they do not go away once the user is sober and they quickly become obsolete in chronic users. People build higher and higher tolerances to these drugs, making them turn to higher and higher doses in order to achieve the same effect. This often causes accidental overdosing. Unfortunately, the depression caused by opiate and opioid addiction often becomes overwhelming for the addict, and many overdoses are not accidents.

 Right now, America is going through a massive opioid crisis and has been since the late 90s. Every year, more people fall victim to addiction and in 2019 alone, an estimated 69,029 people died of a drug overdose. That’s more than the number of gun-related deaths and more than the number of car-crash fatalities in America last year.

Common opiates:

  • Opium
  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Heroin

Common opioids: 

  • Methadone
  • Fentanyl
  • OxyContin
  • Demerol
  • Hydrocodone

For more information on nicotine’s effect on young adults, check out Natalia A. Goriounova and Huibert D. Mansvelder’s study on  Short- and Long-Term Consequences of Nicotine Exposure during Adolescence for Prefrontal Cortex Neuronal Network Function

If you’re interested in THC’s link to paranoia, go to Psychology Today’s website

To learn more about opiate and opioid drug abuse and effects, go to Healthline’s article titled Mental Health and Opioid Dependence: How Are They Connected?

Narcotics Anonymous Oahu: (808) 734-4357

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Textline: 1-800-487-4889