With medical marijuana gaining political traction throughout the country, physicians are turning to the cutting edge research that’s being done on cannabis at the world’s top institutions. Twenty-three states and Washington DC now permit the use of marijuana in medical treatment—when Colorado passed its medical marijuana regulations fifteen years ago, only six had preceded us.
In the early days, the limited available research indicated that cannabis looked promising in treating a wide range of illnesses, but no explanation was delivered. Today, we have a much finer and more nuanced understanding of exactly how cannabis (and its constitutent subcomponents) actually functions in the body. Thanks to a great deal of research undertaken in the past ten years, we know that cannabis affects a system called the endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors that keeps the body’s functions in balance. The unique compounds found in marijuana called cannabinoids interact with this system in a number of ways to allow the body to heal itself. We’re just now coming to understand the powerful healing effect of terpenes – the plant compounds that give herb (and any other scented plant) its distinctive aromas. Taken as a whole, cannabis medicine can be used to treat hundreds of different conditions.
The Endocannabinoid System
Our bodies are composites of integrated systems, each serving its own purpose and contributing to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Each system consists of networks of specialized cells and organs adapted to suite a specific function: the nervous system pushes hyperspeed data to the brain and muscles; the endocrine system modulates gene expression with hormones for long-term adaptation; the circulatory system maintains a constant supply chain of the essentials of life throughout the body; and the endocannabinoid sysem (ECS) coordinates the whole show, from the fundamentals, like body temperature and appetite, to the higher level defenses, like immunity and stress response. It accomplishes this by making its own chemicals that are remarkably similar to those found in marijuana, and using those to activate receptors throughout the body.
The ECS works through two types of receptors: CB1 receptors, which are mostly found in our brains, and CB2 receptors that are essentially part of the immune system. The body produces a number of compounds that are referred to as endocannabinoids—that is, they’re physically and chemically in the same class as the unique compounds otherwise found only in pot. This system is constantly at work in our bodies, but can become imbalanced or deficient. Over time, uncorrected imbalances can cause our systems to stop functioning normally and result in a range of conditions. This has prompted researchers to label a number of commonly suffered conditions—including fibromyalgia, migraines, and irritable bowel syndrome—as endocannbinoid deficiencies.
Cannabinoids in Marijuana
Cannabinoids (cann-AHH-bin-oids) are the unique compounds formed only in the cannabis plant. They start out as a precursor compound that lots of aromatic plants use to make their smells, and mix with a plant metabolite that’s thought to help plants suppress fungus, and another compound that’s produced in bark-dwelling lichens. Each of these substances is found in nature on its own—but cannabis is the only species that produces all three, and when they combine, they form the remarkable chemicals that give the herb its magic.
The first cannabinoid to be discovered in the lab was D9-tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. This is a big part of the psychoactive effect of the plant, and is key to the healing effect of cannabis for the role it plays with our CB1 and CB2 receptors. THC binds to these receptors and activates them, signaling the body to correct the balance on its systems. It has mild pain-relieving potential, and offers relief for suffering thanks to its euphoriant qualities. Of special interest, it has proven directly effective against cancer in the lab—in vitro and in animal models, THC selectively kills tumor cells without damaging healthy ones.
More recently, even mainstream press has been interested in the medical promise shown by another cannabinoid, CBD. CBD is the yin to THC’s yang—it doesn’t bind to either the CB1 or CB2 receptors. Instead, it keeps the cannabinoids the body produces from breaking down quickly, extending and enhancing their balancing effect. This turns out to be especially important in preventing the spread of cancerIt also works on a range of specialized receptors in the brain, slowing down signals in ones related to anxiety, excitation, and pain perception, and speeding up ones that deal with pain relief and anti-inflammatory response.
While CBD is the “it” cannbinoid of the moment, dozens of other more recently discovered compounds are showing incredible promise in medical research and are waiting in the wings to steal the spotlight. CBG is a non-psychoactive substance that works as a counterpoint to THC by interacting with the CB1 and CB2 receptors. It’s proven effective in decreasing anxiety and muscular tension, and has strong anti-inflammatory properties, making it effective in treating inflammation in the GI tract and glaucoma. It’s also an effective anti-depressant and, like THC, has been proven to shrink tumors in animal models.
CBC is another promising cannabinoid that’s proving effective in stimulating bone growth while it blocks inflammation and pain. While THC and CBG directly attack tumors to shrink them, CBC works like CBD to prevent cancer from spreading by keeping the body’s interally produced cannabinoids from breaking down.
Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
All of these substances (and dozens more naturally produced in herb) work on the body in tandem, balancing and enhancing each other. Alongside terpenes—the compounds that are responsible for aromas in plants (from oranges to geraniums and coffee to cannabis)—they have the ability to balance the body all along a spectrum. For example, limonene (the plant chemical that’s responsible for the citrus smell) works with the cannabinoids to give a bracing, stimulating effect; on the other hand, lavendin (which gives lavender its distinct scent) works with the same group to bring relaxation.
Thanks to this versatility, cannabis has seriously beneficial effects in everything from serious diseases like cancer and HIV to difficult to treat imbalances like multiple sclerosis and seizure disorders. It addresses a lot of common chronic pain conditions, like fybromyalgia and migraines, that seem to be caused by a deficiency of the cannabinoids the body should be producing on its own.
Since it causes the body to balance its systems, it helps arthritis and glaucoma by triggering anti-inflammatory reponses, and prevents osteoporosis by tapping the breaks on the body’s hyperactive bone reabsorption mechanisms. By regulating the systems behind energy and appetite, it regulates the metabolism, making it the new hot research trend in treating diabetes and obesity.
One Size Cures All (sort of)
With all the promise pot’s shown in helping conditions ranging from the irritating to the life-threatening, there’s been a renaissance in developing formulations to make it available to more folks who aren’t particularly into smoking it, and who don’t particularly appreciate its recreational aspects. Medical dispensaries across Colorado carry everything from time release capsules and under-the-tongue drops to topical lotions and transdermal patches, and can offer technical expertise and guidance that doctors often can’t.
In ancient Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Persian medicine, cannabis was known to treat hundreds of different conditions, and was considered the default go-to for most common ailments. Today, both the understanding of how it works and how to prepare specific formulations is more refined than ever, and people are moving to Colorado from around the world by the thousands to find relief here at the cutting edge of cannabis medicine.