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Podcast: Habitual Marijuana Use and The Paleo Diet

By The Paleo Diet Team
February 27, 2014
Podcast: Habitual Marijuana Use and The Paleo Diet image

Dr. Loren Cordain: I'm Loren Cordain, founder of the Paleo movement.

Shelley Schlender: I'm Shelley Schlender. This is the Paleo Diet Podcast for June, 2014.

How Fire Played a Role in Hunter-Gatherers Diet

Dr. Loren Cordain: If you look over here, this is how I write papers. You can see all of these stacks of papers.

Shelley Schlender: You have two dozen papers of different kinds around your desk right now, research papers, and I see cannabis is a name on one of them.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Cannabis is a name on all of these. Whenever I write a paper, this is how I've done it in my entire career, a scientific paper, is I go into MEDLINE. I start researching a topic. I usually get myself a good review paper, and then I become versed in what is going on, and then I delve in each and every little topic, and then I go in and I get hundreds of papers and put them into categories. Then I read the abstracts, and then I outline the idea in my head. These stacks of papers become the categories for the scientific paper.

Shelley Schlender: Here in Colorado, marijuana has been decriminalized. Do you think our Paleo ancestors used to smoke cannabis?

Dr. Loren Cordain: That's exactly my point. I haven't completely decided yet on the title of this article, but it's going to be something to do with marijuana use and The Paleo Diet®. I'd been working on a paper for almost a year on how our ancestors made fire. You obviously can't light up a joint unless you can make fire.

Shelley Schlender: You don't think our ancestors waited until lightning struck a tree, and then they all raced there with their hemp plants?


Dr. Loren Cordain: Right. Until we had the ability to create fire, not to just collect it from lightning strikes or volcanic eruptions, it completely draws a line in the sand, not just for smoking pot, but for the foods that we can consume. Cereal grains without cooking are inedible because the starches have to be hydrolyzed and broken down. Legumes can't be consumed, either, because the same thing is true, is the starch and the protein in legumes needs to be broken down with fire, and most tubers. You can't eat raw potatoes, you can't eat raw sweet potatoes, so most tubers are almost indigestible.

Some can be consumed, but most can't, particularly ones that have high amounts of starch.

Shelley Schlender: You mean things like potatoes, white potatoes are hard to digest if they're raw? Maybe sweet potatoes are more digestible, but white potatoes definitely.

Dr. Loren Cordain: White potatoes will make you very ill if you try to eat them raw, in more than just a tiny little slice. If you try to eat a great, big white potato, you will get very ill, and the same thing is true with red kidney beans. Kidney beans, the scientific name is called Phaseolus vulgaris. It comprises not just red kidney beans, it's pinto beans, it's navy beans, it's black beans, it's so many beans that we eat all the time, like in a Mexican restaurant. Unless you cook them, they're completely inedible, so that was one of the reasons why I wrote that paper, was to point out to the Paleo community that some people have suggested that legumes are a part of the Paleo diet.

Some people have suggested that dairy is part of The Paleo Diet, and I just wanted to point out that you cannot eat legumes, you cannot eat cereal grains, and you can't eat most tubers like potatoes unless you have the ability to start a fire.


Shelley Schlender: Before we could start a fire, smoking marijuana may not have been so easy. How about just chewing it or putting it in a salad?

Dr. Loren Cordain: Hunter-gatherers were very much aware of the plants in their environment and what plants were edible, and which ones were toxic, and they probably even knew which ones were hallucinogenic. I don't know what the original range of Cannabis sativa is, but I think it's fairly wide-ranging. You certainly can eat Cannabis sativa raw and get high. Obviously, we don't have any records of that, and I don't know what it's historic range is. Was it originally found in North America, Europe, Asia, or where was it? I haven't looked into that yet. I have to find that out.

Certainly, if they found out that they could chew on this stuff and it could change their psychologic state and make them euphoric, there's no doubt they would have done that.

Shelley Schlender: There's no doubt that they would have done that because there's a lot of evidence in ancient cultures that this was a highly sought after state. To alter your state of reality somewhat was a very sanctified and very pursued thing to do.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Yeah, Shelly, I think you're right, and I think the way in which it was done, it was done more like a ritual.

Shelley Schlender: In ancient societies, the use of hallucinogens was there, but generally in terms of some religious or socially very protected or sanctified purpose. It wasn't just, "Hey, let's go get high."

Dr. Loren Cordain: That pretty much seems to be what the ethnographic data tells us. There was a shaman or a priest or a person of eminence in the group that regulated this. It's not like, "All right, it's Friday afternoon. Let's go out and everybody get loaded." It was more a religious experience, like the peyote and the rest of psychotropic drugs that people had available to them. They knew their environment, they discovered these plants, and they realized what they could do. Obviously had no idea what was going on physiologically.


The Physiological Effects of Marijuana

Really, we have only discovered how marijuana affects us since the mid-'60s. Non-Western cultures, hunter-gatherers probably did do various plants, and as I mentioned, I simply don't know what the range of Cannabis sativa is. I'm going to find that out here shortly.

Shelley Schlender: Once you find that out, it looks like you're studying a number of different side-effects from their use. You've got titles such as "Marijuana Use and Motor Vehicle Crashes," "The Immune System: A Possible Nexus Between Cannabinoids and Psychosis," "Cannabis, the Pregnant Woman, and Her Child: Weeding out the Myths." Are you looking at when just regular recreational use might have side effects that people should really be attentive about?

Dr. Loren Cordain: That's exactly the idea here. I don't want to make a social or political commentary. This has nothing to do with the social political commentary. I'm not even telling people what they should or should not put into their bodies. That's completely up to them, and that's really the political bias that I've always had. What I think is important is that I think that people should be informed scientifically about the effect of any plant or any animal food, or any compound that you regularly put in your body. It seems like there's two camps here with the marijuana issue.

There is one camp that says you absolutely shouldn't do it because it got all these negative side effects, and then there's another camp that says that there's nothing wrong with it. Apparently here in Colorado, we are in that second camp, because there's two states in the United States that have legalized recreational marijuana use, Washington State and Colorado, and so it seems like almost every day in the news, we see something new about marijuana. I just think that it's important for all people to make informed consent.


I'm in favor of decriminalizing this issue. I really don't think that people should be put in prison for smoking a plant product. However, it's like tobacco. This might not be a very good idea to do day in and day out throughout your lifetime in terms of how it affects your health. That's where I'm coming from, and again, this isn't a political or social commentary. It's a purely medical, physiologic, and health-related commentary, and so you should look out here across these stacks of papers that I've been working on for the last couple weeks.

As a scientist, I try to review the literature and be impartial. I try to say, "Is there in effect here that has an adverse effect on health, or is this a poor study? Is this a good study? Is this as an epidemiologic study, an animal study, and can we show causality?" It's like many of the topics that I've researched over the years is I start off knowing very little about it, and I certainly don't claim to be an expert in this area, but I do have the training to be able to look at scientific papers and tell you the veracity of them, and the strength of the papers.

Shelley Schlender: What are you deciding so far as you look through these studies about marijuana?


Dr. Loren Cordain: It's like coming to a crime scene and putting back together all of these vectors. How did they get in place to produce whatever it is they do? My impression is we now have some very powerful evidence that we should provide to our young people, to our middle-aged people, and to old people in terms of how a produce may or may not affect their health. Tobacco use, we really didn't know until the surgeon general report in 1961 or wherever it came out that smoking tobacco wasn't a good idea. About 20, 25% of the US population still smokes tobacco.

Most of them are full aware that it's not a good idea. When Colorado legalized marijuana and Washington State did, too, the average person has to be more than 50% of the populace, the voting people. They must think that it really is a benign issue, and so do you want your 18 year old smoking pot for the rest of his life? Do you want your 12 year old smoking pot? How about you? You're a 35, you're 45. Do you want to smoke pot for the rest of your life? If you do, fine. Again, this is not a political or social commentary, but you should be informed. We have studies that are called meta-analyses.

Meta-analyses are large pool population in which scientists pull together, not just one, not two, but virtually every article on the topic, and then there are specific statistical procedures to analyze these pooled population studies. That's what a meta-analysis is all about. I don't get very upset when I see a single paper that shows me one thing shows me another things. We've all heard eggs are good for us, eggs are bad for us. Eggs are good for us, eggs are bad for us, but what we really want to do is let's take every study that's ever been done on eggs, and then let's look at the end point.

That's what a meta-analysis allows us to do. It gives us more insight into complex diet, health-related problems than a single study, because you could always find one study that shows you something and one that shows you something else. That's the approach that I've taken with my study over the last couple of months on marijuana and health. The meta-analyses are fairly revealing. This allows you to get up to an expert level.


Can marijuana be part of a contemporary Paleo Diet?

Shelley Schlender: I'm going to cut to the chase here. You don't look completely comfortable with the idea of people smoking pot a lot. You look like the studies and science are saying to you that there might be some reasons for concern for brain health.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Shelly, we started this thing off with the notion of the ability to make fire. That was a paper I wrote months ago in conjunction with my college Onsbeth at the University of Michigan and other scientists. Increasingly in the archeologic and anthropologic community, we are now realizing that the ability to make fire has been only very, very recent technological innovation. There's a guy at Harvard, another colleague Richard Rangam who claims that we were able to make fire from the very get-go, 2.5 millions year. We might have been able to collect fire from lightning strikes, but the ability to start a fire or create a fire seems to have only happened very, very recently.

It only seems to be a technological innovation of our own species, Homo sapiens, and perhaps in our own species, only about 75 to maybe 100,000 years ago. If that's the case, then smoking any compound would be impossible on a regular basis because you can't light a fire. That begs the issue is that, how about eating it raw? We've talked about that a little bit earlier. Once I discover what normal habitat the range for Cannabis sativa is, then we'll be able to make some kind of conclusions about when and where were humans consuming marijuana and under what context. They certainly weren't smoking it on a daily basis like what we do now and we have the ability to do.


It's like they ate honey. It's like us. We can eat refined carbohydrates, but we can't do it every day. Honey's only available seasonally. Same thing with marijuana. Even if they didn't smoke it and they ate it, it would only been available seasonally. Couldn't have been consumed on a daily basis like what we have now.

Shelley Schlender: Then also marijuana today has been cultivated to have very powerful effects, either for altering mood or for having medicinal purposes, and maybe the wild plant didn't have such a high specialty to it.

Dr. Loren Cordain: You're absolutely right. It's just like with anything else whatever agriculture is that we have cultivated plants to produce characteristics that we want. With fruits, we've produced fruits that are large, that have a lot of sugar in them and less fiber, and wild plants don't have that. Similarly, if we look at wild marijuana plants is that the concentration of the psychoactive substance, which is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol-

Shelley Schlender: Can you say that fast three times?

Dr. Loren Cordain: Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or commonly known as THC. Most pot smokers know that that is the active ingredient that gives them their high or their euphoria. There are pretty good studies that go back in the literature showing that in the '60s, my generation, the concentration of THC in the average joint might have been 1-3% or so, whereas now marijuana has been cultivated to get as high as 10-20% by weight of THC.

Shelley Schlender: Let's calculate that, then. That's maybe four times higher in terms of each puff would have much more concentrated effect.

Dr. Loren Cordain: That's absolutely right. THC is a cannabinoid, word that you were interested in earlier. THC is a cannabinoid, and amazingly we have what's called an endogenous cannabinous system.


Shelley Schlender: We have inside of our cells in our brain little receptors ready to receive basically marijuana's psychoactive ingredient?

Dr. Loren Cordain: It was designed by evolution, not for exogenous cannabinoids like THC. It was designed for endogenous cannabinous.

Shelley Schlender: That means that our body makes something similar to the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana for pain relief.

Dr. Loren Cordain: We're not completely sure how the cannabinoid system works, and how it evolved, but we do know that it has a variety of physiologic effects. When the endogenous ligands, which are the compounds that are supposed to bind the receptors, and so what happens is that we find a plant substance that happens to have the capacity to bind the receptor. What that means is then we're interrupting the way the system is working. We're making the cannabinoid system work in a manner in which evolution didn't design it.

Shelley Schlender: Meaning that our bodies are designed to make something like this in situations where the body on its own has determined that this might be beneficial, but then just keeping it from things that we take in isn't something we evolved to do.

Dr. Loren Cordain: That's right, and what happens is that the receptors themselves whenever we do this, if we take an exogenous ligand and we put it in the system, what happens is the receptors tend to down-regulate, meaning that the number of receptors in a tissue gets less and less because the tissue say, "I don't want any more of this."

Shelley Schlender: That means that our cells, when our body was making just a teensy, tiny bit of this would soak it up and take in in readily would, after a while of somebody smoking a lot of pot or eating a lot of marijuana brownies, those receptors might go, "Oh, gosh, no more of this. We just can't take it anymore."


Dr. Loren Cordain: The analogy is it's like a complex thermostat. With a thermostat, if the temperature goes up and it gets too hot, then it turns it down. It's a one-way system, but with receptors, there are multiple pathways that operate with multiple other systems. The way it works is that these natural ligands that combine through the cannabinoid receptors, and there's two of them, there's CB1 and CB2, they have multiple negative feedback systems that maintain what's called homeostasis. That keeps the body within a narrow range. When people take exogenous cannabinoids that binds CB1 and CB2 receptors in the brain, it overloads the system and it produces an effect that takes us out of homeostasis.

The effect that it takes us out of changes cognitive function. In our world, when we live in a protected environment, that doesn't matter, but if you're a hunter-gatherer and your cognitive function starts to go awry, and you have altered perceptions of reality, that's not a good thing.

Shelley Schlender: Boy, but that image of being over a Paleo campfire and lighting up a Paleo-style marijuana cigarette, it is a lovely image you got to admit.

Dr. Loren Cordain: The ability to light up a joint only happened ... let me give you, this is the analogy that maybe the listeners would want to hear. If you put on a 24-hour time clock, a military clock, day begins one minute after midnight and it ends at midnight the next day, that's 24 hours. If you were to put the entire timeframe that our genus, Homo, has lived on the planet, 2.5 million years, onto a 24-hour time clock, the ability to create or produce fire came somewhere between 36 minutes to 48 minutes to midnight.


Imagine that. You went through an entire 24-hour day, and now you're approaching midnight, and at 36 minutes to midnight, we finally can do fire. On an evolutionary basis is that, not only does fire draw a line in the sand about the foods that we can eat, you can't eat legumes, you can't eat potatoes, you can't eat cereal grains because we couldn't create fire on a regular basis. The same thing is true, any type of narcotic or drug or plant product that requires incineration to get high on, it just didn't happen.
That's all for this edition of The Paleo Diet Podcast. Visit my website,, past episodes and for hot links to the experts and studies that we talked about today.

Shelley Schlender: Our theme music is by Chapman Stick soloist Bob Culbertson.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Want to send me questions or comments? The place to go is

Shelley Schlender: For the Paleo Diet Podcast, I'm Shelly Schlender.

Dr. Loren Cordain: And I'm Loren Cordain.

Habitual Marijuana Use and The Paleo Diet: What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been
By Loren Cordain, Ph.D.

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