Cannabis has a profound influence on the human body. This single herb and its variety of therapeutic compounds seem to affect every aspect of human bodies and minds. How is this possible?
The Endogenous Cannabinoid System (ECS), is possibly the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. In each tissue, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the purpose is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.
Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids are also found at the intersection of the body's various systems, allowing communication and coordination between different cell types. At the site of an injury, for example, cannabinoids can be found decreasing the release of activators and sensitizers from the injured tissue, stabilizing the nerve cell to prevent excessive firing, and calming nearby immune cells to prevent release of pro-inflammatory substances. These behaviors represent three different mechanisms of action on three different cell types for a single purpose: minimize the pain and damage caused by the injury.
The endocannabinoid system, with its complex actions in our immune systems, nervous systems, and all of the body's organs, is literally a bridge between body and mind. By understanding this system, we begin to see a mechanism that explains how states of consciousness can promote health or disease.
In addition to regulating our internal and cellular homeostasis, cannabinoids influence a person's relationship with the external environment. Socially, the administration of cannabinoids clearly alters human behavior, often promoting sharing, humor, and creativity. By mediating neurogenesis, neuronal plasticity, and learning, cannabinoids may directly influence a person's open-mindedness and ability to move beyond limiting patterns of thought and behavior from past situations. Reformatting these old patterns is an essential part of health in our quickly changing environment.
All vertebrate species share the endocannabinoid system as an essential part of life and adaptation to environmental changes. By comparing the genetics of cannabinoid receptors in different species, scientists estimate that the endocannabinoid system evolved in primitive animals over 600 million years ago.
Cannabinoid receptors are present throughout the body, embedded in cell membranes, and are believed to be more numerous than any other receptor system. When cannabinoid receptors are stimulated, a variety of physiologic processes ensue. Researchers have identified two cannabinoid receptors: CB1, predominantly present in the nervous system, connective tissues, gonads, glands, and organs; and CB2, predominantly found in the immune system and its associated structures. Many tissues contain both CB1 and CB2 receptors, each linked to a different action. Researchers speculate there may be a third cannabinoid receptor waiting to be discovered.
Endocannabinoids are the substances our bodies naturally make to stimulate these receptors. The two most well understood of these molecules are called anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). They are synthesized on-demand from cell membrane arachidonic acid derivatives, have a local effect and short half-life before being degraded by the enzymes fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL).
Phytocannabinoids are plant substances that stimulate cannabinoid receptors. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the most psychoactive and certainly the most famous of these substances, but other cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) are gaining the interest of researchers due to a variety of healing properties. Most phytocannabinoids have been isolated from cannabis sativa, but other medical herbs, such as echinacea purpura, have been found to contain non-psychoactive cannabinoids as well.
Interestingly, the cannabis plant also uses THC and other cannabinoids to promote its own health and prevent disease. Cannabinoids have antioxidant properties that protect the leaves and flowering structures from ultraviolet radiation - cannabinoids neutralize the harmful free radicals generated by UV rays, protecting the cells. In humans, free radicals cause aging, cancer, and impaired healing. Antioxidants found in plants have long been promoted as natural supplements to prevent free radical harm.
Laboratories can also produce cannabinoids. Synthetic THC, marketed as dronabinol (Marinol), and nabilone (Cesamet), a THC analog, are both FDA approved drugs for the treatment of severe nausea and wasting syndrome. Some clinicians have found them helpful in the off-label treatment of chronic pain, migraine, and other serious conditions. Many other synthetic cannabinoids are used in animal research, and some have potency up to 600 times that of THC.
As we continue to sort through the emerging science of cannabis and cannabinoids, one thing remains clear: a functional cannabinoid system is essential for health. From embryonic implantation on the wall of our mother's uterus, to nursing and growth, to responding to injuries, endocannabinoids help us survive in a quickly changing and increasingly hostile environment. Research has shown that small doses of cannabinoids from cannabis can signal the body to make more endocannabinoids and build more cannabinoid receptors. This is why many first-time cannabis users don't feel an effect, but by their second or third time using the herb they have built more cannabinoid receptors and are ready to respond. More receptors increase a person's sensitivity to cannabinoids; smaller doses have larger effects, and the individual has an enhanced baseline of endocannabinoid activity. Small, regular doses of cannabis might act as a tonic to our most central physiologic healing systems.
Unlike synthetic derivatives, herbal cannabis may contain over one hundred different cannabinoids, including THC, which all work synergistically to produce better medical effects and less side effects than THC alone. While cannabis is safe and works well when smoked, many patients prefer to avoid respiratory irritation and instead use a vaporizer, cannabis tincture, or topical salve. Scientific inquiry and patient testimonials both indicate that herbal cannabis has superior medical qualities to synthetic cannabinoids.
In 1902 Thomas Edison said, "There were never so many able, active minds at work on the problems of disease as now, and all their discoveries are tending toward the simple truth that you can't improve on nature." Cannabinoid research has proven this statement is still valid.