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If you've been considering cannabis as an herbal health aid, there's more evidence than ever to give marijuana a fair trial
Cannabis has one of the most prolific histories of any plant in the herbal pharmacopeia. With uses ranging from spiritual to medicinal, the reason that humans have bonded so deeply with this plant lies in our shared biology. The cannabis plant produces phytochemicals called cannabinoids that bind with receptor sites throughout the body, demonstrating evolutionary synthesis of the highest order.
These endogenous cannabinoid receptors make up the endocannabinoid system, a biological feature shared by humans and animals, evidence of the synergy that develops between useful plants and the creatures that consume them.[i] Varying strains of cannabis plants produce different cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), allowing consumers to select specific chemovars (chemical varieties) to induce particular effects when ingested.
Cannabinoids: The Key to Cannabis Effects
There are hundreds of naturally occurring phytocannabinoids in cannabis plants, however modern strains have been cultivated by plant geneticists to produce higher or lower amounts of certain cannabinoids to deliver more reliable therapeutic outcomes. Some of the primary cannabinoids responsible for cannabis' therapeutic effects are:
- CBD: non-psychoactive, analgesic, anticonvulsant, sedative, anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory[ii]
- THC: psychoactive, analgesic, bronchodilatory, muscle relaxant, antipruritic, anti-nausea[iii]
- CBN (cannabinol): sedative, anticonvulsant, anti-inflammatory, anti-MRSA[iv]
- THCA (tetrahydrocannabinol acid): neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory,[v] reduces adiposity (obesity), improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity[vi]
- CBG (cannabigerol): antipruritic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, relieves intraocular pressure, analgesic, muscle relaxant, anticancer[vii]
Wild strains of Cannabis sativa have evolved throughout centuries of natural selection to contain varying amounts of these and other phytocannabinoids. The more widely known cannabinoids like THC and CBD are produced when plants have been decarboxylated, a process that occurs under specific heat, light or alkaline conditions.[viii] There are approximately 66 known cannabinoids[ix] that are associated with a growing list of known therapeutic effects.
Cannabis' Botanical Diversity
Cannabis sativa has three primary subspecies:
- Cannabis indica -- shorter, bushier plant strain with higher CBD content that can produce psychoactive or non-psychoactive effects[x]
- Cannabis sativa -- taller, THC-dominant plants that are psychoactive[xi]
- Industrial hemp -- same species, different cultivars; contains no substantive THC (non-psychoactive); primarily used in industrial applications[xii]
Despite having no mechanism to produce a drug-induced "high," industrial hemp has been inexplicably caught up in cannabis prohibition and was added to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's list of Schedule I substances, making hemp-growing illegal or seriously restricted in the U.S. until legislative easing in 2014 and 2018.[xiii]
Ongoing cannabis prohibition is waning, with legalization beyond the tipping point in the U.S. As of 2021, there are 33 states administering medical marijuana programs and 11 states allowing recreational use for adults over the age of 21.[xiv]
Cannabis as Medical Intervention
As criminal penalties fall away and legal access takes root across the U.S., research into the therapeutic effects of cannabis has kicked into high gear. As evidence mounts, medical cannabis program administrators must reevaluate the qualifying conditions for which an individual can receive a cannabis patient access card. While each state's list varies, the most common qualifying conditions include:
Spinal cord injury
Cachexia (wasting syndrome)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Humanity's co-evolution alongside the cannabis plant makes it a ready therapeutic. When consumed, the phytoactive cannabinoids are rapidly synthesized and degraded by the body's endocannabinoid system, rendering cannabis therapy quick to onset and subside. This fast, nontoxic action enables cannabinoid therapy to provide a potentially safer alternative to opioids and benzodiazepines.[xvi]
Therapeutic Properties of Cannabis
If you are considering integrating this ancient herb into your wellness regime, we've identified five of the most studied therapeutic properties of cannabis. This fragrant flower may help you weather the storms of life by protecting your brain, calming your nerves and even boosting your immunity to disease.
Conditions like dementia and Alzheimer's disease have become synonymous with the mental cobwebs that can accompany aging. Cannabis use may be a way to provide a layer of protection around your grey matter, as evidenced by exciting research into cannabis' neuroprotective properties.
Contrary to the popular stereotype of the forgetful "stoner," a study published in the journal Molecular Pharmacology found that cannabis has properties that can aid the memory loss that often accompanies Alzheimer's disease and may help prevent one of the root causes of the disease, brain plaque.[xvii]
In the study, researchers found that THC, the cannabinoid that conveys marijuana's psychoactive properties, was superior to currently prescribed Alzheimer's drugs for inhibiting amyloid beta aggregation, the accumulation of plaques that are a key pathological marker of Alzheimer's disease.[xviii] THC also effectively inhibits the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE), an action that has been linked to improved memory and cognitive function by helping to increase the concentration of acetylcholine in the brain.[xix]
Current allopathic treatment methods for Alzheimer's disease involve prescription cholinesterase inhibitors (ChEls), drugs that are associated with a long list of common side effects including insomnia, high blood pressure, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.[xx]
Scientists involved in the study concluded that these previously unrecognized molecular mechanisms of cannabis may directly impede the progression of Alzheimer's disease,[xxi] evidence that broadening research into cannabinoids is yielding promising results.
Inflammation is a natural biological response to foreign substances invading your body, whether it's a thorn that pricks your finger while gardening or a virus that your child brings home from school. Inflammation has also been identified as a contributing factor in a wide array of chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.[xxii] Research into the therapeutic effects of cannabis points to anti-inflammatory properties that may indicate help is on the horizon.
Cannabinoids have shown promise in helping to reduce inflammation associated with IBS, a disease that affects around 11% of the global population.[xxiii] A 2015 study on cannabinoids found that they exert anti-inflammatory effects on different cancer types, both in vitro and in vivo in animal models.[xxiv]
Another cannabinoid found in Cannabis sativa as well as other food plants, BCP (beta-caryophyllene), has been shown to act as a selective agonist of CB2R, a cannabinoid receptor found in the body's endocannabinoid system that has immunosuppressive actions. This mechanism has led researchers to recommend cannabis as a novel treatment to reduce the hyper-inflammatory response that occurs during human sepsis, the main cause of death in most intensive care units.[xxv]
3. Pain Relief
Chronic pain affects an estimated 100 million Americans[xxvi] and is one of the most significant public health problems in the U.S. Two of the commonly prescribed types of drugs for pain, opioids and triptans, have their own associated problems: overdosing prescription opioids ends the life of one of every 550 chronic users within three years of their first prescription,[xxvii] and triptans may be unsafe for older adults and those at risk for heart attack and stroke.[xxviii] In comparison, cannabis has low toxicity and a high safety profile,[xxix] making it a safer choice for chronic pain.[xxx]
A 2020 study on medical cannabis for migraine sufferers found that using cannabis to medicate chronic pain had multiple benefits: after three years of cannabis treatment, patients used lower amounts of opioid and triptan drugs for pain management, and cannabis also reduced migraine frequency and lowered negative impact of migraines.[xxxi]
Cannabis can also be used as an adjunct pain therapy, allowing patients to use less synthetic pain medication, thereby increasing the safety profile of pain medications. A 2017 study found that when cannabinoids were administered with opioids, specifically morphine, nearly four times less morphine was needed to achieve the same analgesic effect.[xxxii] This presents further evidence for cannabis as a means to reduce opiate dependency and death.
Anxiety is a natural byproduct of living in the modern world. However, anxiety disorders can be debilitating for sufferers, who often turn to medication to manage symptoms. A systematic review of cannabis trials showed that using CBD was associated with a greater improvement in feelings of anxiety than placebo during a simulated public speaking test.[xxxiii] Other trials have demonstrated that cannabinoids produce greater short-term benefit than placebo on self-reported anxiety symptoms.[xxxiv]
In a study of marijuana use to control symptoms of Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by sudden, unwanted movements and verbalizations referred to as "nervous tics," cannabis use was associated with a 50% reduction of motor tics and reduction in self-harming behavior after four weeks of use.[xxxv] Upon discontinuation of cannabis use, there was a rebound exacerbation of symptoms within 12 hours.[xxxvi]
While high levels of THC may produce psychoactive effects that aggravate anxiety, non-psychoactive CBD-dominant strains are gaining traction as a treatment that is sanctioned by mainstream medicine. Clinical evidence is mounting that strongly supports CBD as a safe, nontoxic treatment option for anxiety disorders, including panic and social anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when properly administered.[xxxvii]
5. Immunomodulatory and Apoptotic
A healthy immune system is key to a long, healthy life, and when it comes to cancer, your immune system may be the key to life. Cannabinoids exert a profound ability to modulate the immune system, by taking four distinct actions that support human health:
- Antitumor effects
- Suppression of cancer cells
- Anti-inflammatory protections
- Suppresses autoimmune reaction
A phenomenon called "induction of apoptosis" is one of the most important markers of anticancer action.[xxxviii] Apoptosis is spontaneous cell death, which in the case of cancer is a very desirable effect. Cannabinoids have demonstrated the ability to induce apoptosis of deadly cancer cells.[xxxix] These potent polyphenols further inhibit cancerous tumor cells by preventing their growth into larger tumors.[xl]
Cannabinoids provide additional support by suppressing the cytokine storms that accompany the immune system's response to cancerous cells, then double-down by producing an increase in anti-inflammatory cytokines.[xli] In short, suppressing the bad and increasing the good effects on the immune system -- all through safe, nontoxic actions. These are the miracles of working with highly intelligent plant medicine.
*WARNING: Always consult a medical herbalist or your health care practitioner when using both natural and pharmaceutical medicines for any diagnosed condition. This article is for informational purposes only and not intended to be used as medical advice.
[ii] Harvard Health Publishing, Cannabidiol (CBD) - what we know and what we don't, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/cannabidiol-cbd-what-we-know-and-what-we-dont-2018082414476
[iv] Science Direct, Topics, Medicine and Dentistry, Cannabinol, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/cannabinol
[v] Nadal X, Del Río C, Casano S, et al. Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid is a potent PPARγ agonist with neuroprotective activity. Br J Pharmacol. 2017;174(23):4263-4276. doi:10.1111/bph.14019 [PMC: 5731255]
[vi] Belén Palomares, Francisco Ruiz-Pino, Martin Garrido-Rodriguez, M. Eugenia Prados, Miguel A. Sánchez-Garrido, Inmaculada Velasco, María J. Vazquez, Xavier Nadal, Carlos Ferreiro-Vera, Rosario Morrugares, Giovanni Appendino, Marco A Calzado, Manuel Tena-Sempere, Eduardo Muñoz, Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid A (THCA-A) reduces adiposity and prevents metabolic disease caused by diet-induced obesity, Biochemical Pharmacology, Volume 171, 2020, 113693, ISSN 0006-2952, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bcp.2019.113693
[vii] Science Direct, Neuroscience, Cannabigerol, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/cannabigerol
[viii] News-Medical Life Sciences, Health, Phytocannabinoids, https://www.news-medical.net/health/Phytocannabinoids.aspx
[ix] News-Medical Life Sciences, Health, Phytocannabinoids, https://www.news-medical.net/health/Phytocannabinoids.aspx
[xiv] WebMD, A to Z Guides, Medical Marijuana FAQ, https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/medical-marijuana-faq
[xv] Boehnke KF, Gangopadhyay S, Clauw DJ, Haffajee RL. Qualifying Conditions Of Medical Cannabis License Holders In The United States [published correction appears in Health Aff (Millwood). 2019 Mar;38(3):511] [published correction appears in Health Aff (Millwood). 2019 Nov;38(11):1953]. Health Aff (Millwood). 2019;38(2):295-302. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2018.05266 [PMID: 30715980]
[xvi] Journal of Young Investigators, The Endocannabinoid System, Our Universal Regulator, https://www.jyi.org/2018-june/2018/6/1/the-endocannabinoid-system-our-universal-regulator
[xvii] Lisa M Eubanks, Claude J Rogers, Albert E Beuscher, George F Koob, Arthur J Olson, Tobin J Dickerson, Kim D Janda . A molecular link between the active component of marijuana and Alzheimer's disease pathology. Mol Pharm. 2006 Nov-Dec;3(6):773-7. PMID: 17140265
[xviii] Lisa M Eubanks, Claude J Rogers, Albert E Beuscher, George F Koob, Arthur J Olson, Tobin J Dickerson, Kim D Janda . A molecular link between the active component of marijuana and Alzheimer's disease pathology. Mol Pharm. 2006 Nov-Dec;3(6):773-7. PMID: 17140265
[xix] Lisa M Eubanks, Claude J Rogers, Albert E Beuscher, George F Koob, Arthur J Olson, Tobin J Dickerson, Kim D Janda . A molecular link between the active component of marijuana and Alzheimer's disease pathology. Mol Pharm. 2006 Nov-Dec;3(6):773-7. PMID: 17140265
[xx] MedicineNet.com, Cholinesterase Inhibitors, What are cholinesterase inhibitors (ChEIs)? How do they work? https://www.medicinenet.com/cholinesterase_inhibitors/article.htm#what_are_the_uses_for_cholinesterase_inhibitors
[xxi] Lisa M Eubanks, Claude J Rogers, Albert E Beuscher, George F Koob, Arthur J Olson, Tobin J Dickerson, Kim D Janda . A molecular link between the active component of marijuana and Alzheimer's disease pathology. Mol Pharm. 2006 Nov-Dec;3(6):773-7. PMID: 17140265
[xxiii] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana: An Evidence Review and Research Agenda. The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2017 Jan 12. 4, Therapeutic Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK425767/
[xxiv] Panagiotis Zogopoulos, Penelope Korkolopoulou, Efstratios Patsouris, Stamatios Theocharis. The antitumor action of cannabinoids on glioma tumorigenesis. Histol Histopathol. 2015 Jun ;30(6):629-45. Epub 2014 Dec 4. PMID: 25472761
[xxv] Meza A, Lehmann C. Betacaryophyllene - A phytocannabinoid as potential therapeutic modality for human sepsis? Med Hypotheses. 2018 Jan;110:68-70. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2017.10.025. Epub 2017 Nov 4. PMID: 29317072.
[xxvi] Institute of Medicine Report from the Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care, and Education: Relieving Pain in America, A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education and Research. The National Academies Press, 2011. https://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13172&page=1.
[xxvii] Gabapentin, opioids, and the risk of opioid-related death: A population-based nested case-control study. Gomes, Juurlink, Antoniou, Mamdani, Paterson, van den Brink. PLoS Med. 2017 Oct 3;14(10):e1002396. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002396. eCollection 2017 Oct.
[xxviii] American Migraine Foundation, Migraine, Stroke and Heart Disease. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/migraine-stroke-and-heart-disease/. Accessed 7/12/20.
[xxx] Lachenmeier DW, Rehm J. Comparative risk assessment of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and other illicit drugs using the margin of exposure approach. Sci Rep. 2015;5:8126. doi:10.1038/srep08126. PMCID: 4311234
[xxxi] Aviram J, Vysotski Y, Berman P, Lewitus GM, Eisenberg E, Meiri D. Migraine Frequency Decrease Following Prolonged Medical Cannabis Treatment: A Cross-Sectional Study. Brain Sci. 2020;10(6):E360. Published 2020 Jun 9. PMID: 32526965
[xxxii] Suzanne Nielsen, Pamela Sabioni, Jose M Trigo, Mark A Ware, Brigid D Betz-Stablein, Bridin Murnion, Nicholas Lintzeris, Kok Eng Khor, Michael Farrell, Andrew Smith, Bernard Le Foll. Opioid-sparing Effect of Cannabinoids: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2017 Mar 22. Epub 2017 Mar 22. PMID: 28327548
[xxxiii] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana: An Evidence Review and Research Agenda. The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2017 Jan 12. 4, Therapeutic Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK425767/
[xxxiv] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana: An Evidence Review and Research Agenda. The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2017 Jan 12. 4, Therapeutic Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK425767/
[xxxvii] Blessing EM, Steenkamp MM, Manzanares J, Marmar CR. Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety Disorders. Neurotherapeutics. 2015;12(4):825-836. doi:10.1007/s13311-015-0387-1 [PMID: 26341731]
[xxxviii] Safarzadeh E, Sandoghchian Shotorbani S, Baradaran B. Herbal medicine as inducers of apoptosis in cancer treatment. Adv Pharm Bull. 2014;4(Suppl 1):421-427. doi:10.5681/apb.2014.062 [PMID: 25364657]
[xxxix] Rom S, Persidsky Y. Cannabinoid receptor 2: potential role in immunomodulation and neuroinflammation. J Neuroimmune Pharmacol. 2013;8(3):608-620. doi:10.1007/s11481-013-9445-9 [PMID: 23471521]