Whether you call it Cotton Mouth, the pasties, or just a case of dry mouth, anyone who’s tried marijuana should be familiar with this common side effect. And although cotton mouth has probably been around for as long as humans have been using marijuana,
it wasn’t until recently that a group of scientists were able to explain how it worked.
Since 2006, cotton mouth has been the subject of research for a group of Argentinean scientists out of the University of Buenos Aires. Thanks to them, we now know quite a bit about this minor, yet uncomfortable symptom of being high.
The answer lies in the body’s cannabinoid system, which is found in every human being. Cannabinoid receptors – a key component of this system – act as binding sites for both plant and human cannabinoids and are found in many parts of the body, including the glands where saliva is produced.
As it turns out, both types of cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) are present in the submandibular glands – a pair of glands located beneath the floor of the mouth that are responsible for producing about 70% of our saliva. When a cannabinoid like THC binds to its receptor, the submandibular glands stop receiving messages from the parasympathetic nervous system telling them to produce saliva – resulting in an experience that perhaps only a mouth full of cotton could replicate.
Interestingly, cannabinoids are believed to block messages from the parasympathetic nervous system in two ways, by binding to receptors in salivary glands as well as receptors in the brain where the signals originate from.
But what role does saliva serve in the first place? Here, marijuana teaches us another lesson in biology: The role of saliva in digestion (which is almost guaranteed to happen when the ‘munchies’ strike). Saliva helps to not only lubricate the passage of food from the mouth to the stomach, but also contains digestive enzymes of its own that assist in the breakdown of starches and fats.
Although researchers have yet to make an attempt at solving the temporary cotton mouth that affects marijuana users, they’ve been looking at ways to use this knowledge to treat problems associated with altered saliva production.
By targeting cannabinoid receptors, scientists may one day be able to increase or decrease saliva levels in patients that suffer from a variety of conditions known to cause a permanent state of cotton mouth. Now that’s something most of us can’t complain about.