MEDICAL CANNABISHow it affects the body
Cannabis as medicine is a far-fetched idea to a lot of people, and it’s easy to see why. In New Mexico alone there are 21 qualifying health conditions for medical cannabis use within the state-run program: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease), cancer, Crohn’s desease, epilepsy, glaucoma, hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, Huntington’s disease, hospice care, inclusion body myositis, inflammatory autoimmune-mediated arthritis, intractable nausea/vomiting, multiple sclerosis, spinal chord damage, painful peripheral neuropathy, Parkinson’s disease, PTSD, severe chronic pain, severe anorexia/cachexia, cervical dystonia and ulcerative colitis.
While cannabis has been shown to be beneficial for an array of ailments, modern pharmaceuticals are typically comprised of 1 or 2 active chemicals with very specific effects in the human body. Most pharmaceuticals are approved by the FDA to treat a limited number of medical conditions. Some also have “off label” uses for conditions they are not approved for.
FDA regulations were created in the hopes of stemming the flow of “snake oils” that wildly claimed to cure a number of conditions without any scientific evidence. It’s only through extensive clinical trials that doctors now know benzodiazepines are useful for sedation, opiates can control pain, and antibiotics kill bacteria and germs. Strict federal regulation and the classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, has denied cannabis its scientific due. In spite of that, 25 states in the U.S. as well as provinces around the world, now have medical cannabis programs. The scientific studies that have been conducted with cannabis point to it aiding in a range of ailments. Historically, cultures around the world have been using cannabis for a variety of medicinal uses for thousands of years. True snake oils don’t have this longevity!
What makes cannabis different from other medications? Why does it impact so many areas of the body? The answer lies in the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Discovered recently while attempting to determine how cannabis causes psychoactive effects, researchers found that cannabinoids like THC (the primary psychoactive component of cannabis) were interacting with an extremely large system of neurons and receptors. In fact, the ECS is the largest signaling system in the entire human body. Almost every animal on earth (with the exception of insects) possess an endocannabinoid system.
The ECS is interesting because it does not work like many other signaling systems in the body. In standard neuron communication, a chemical “message” made up of different neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are sent to receptor sites (post synaptic cells). These chemical messages in our brains control what we think, do and perceive. The ECS works backwards. When postsynaptic cells are activated, they create endo-cannabinoids and send them against the normal flow of neurotransmitters, then bind with the neuron. From there, cannabinoids can alter the messages that those neurons send, either increasing or decreasing signaling. The ECS primary role seems to be maintaining homeostasis within the body—a natural system of regulation. If a neurotransmitter is over firing, their post synaptic cells will create endo-cannabinoids to slow the flow of that chemical, and vice versa.
What makes cannabis effective are its group of over 100 unique molecules called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids can interact with neurons just like our bodies own “endo-cannabinoids.” If your bodies ECS isn’t functioning properly, supplementing phyto-cannabinoids with cannabis can be extremely beneficial. Cancer, for instance, occurs when cells stop their normal process of growth and death, the cells continue to grow in number but cease to die. This creates problems for other cells around the effected area and causes the formation of a cell mass, or tumor. Normally, the body will realize that its cells are misbehaving and send an army of chemicals to stop it. If these chemicals cannot stop the mass, there is a problem.
Many of the chemicals that the body sends to a site of inflammation, like a tumor, are endo-cannabinoids. These molecules can act as cell mediators, telling cells they are in contact with to behave normally. If your body cannot produce enough endo-cannabinoids you can help it along with the addition of phyto-cannabinoids from cannabis, which have shown the same ability to mediate cells. (For further reading, check out the cannabis section at the National Cancer Institute.)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another good example. In a 2013 study published in Moleclular Psychology, researchers found much lower-than-normal levels of anandamide, a primary endo-cannabinoid, in patients suffering from PTSD. THC is very similar to anandamide chemically, and interacts with many of the same receptors, which may explain why medical cannabis is so beneficial to some PTSD patients.
There are currently two accepted cannabinoid receptor types in the ECS, and these are CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors are mainly concentrated in the brain, spinal cord, stomach, liver, GI tract and reproductive organs. CB2 receptors are created on demand by the body (usually in response to inflammation) and are concentrated mainly in the bones, and immune system cells. Phyto-cannabinoids in cannabis have been known to activate both of these receptor types, some being more effective than others. CB1 receptors can alter mood, memory, pain sensations, emotional processing, learning, thinking, and motivation. CB2 receptors seem to mainly be activated by the body whenever they are needed to correct cell actions, like stopping inflammations when it is not needed, or starting it where it is needed.
It is not cannabis itself that is a miracle medicine, our bodies possess a system of homeostatic regulation that is miraculous, and cannabis can activate and alter that system. Cannabis can interact with a system within our bodies that can control almost anything, which explains its myriad of benefits. This also means that we must be careful not to harm the ECS by over stimulating it with phyto-cannabinoids, which can stop the body from producing its own endo-cannabinoids, causing the body to become reliant on cannabis to function properly. Use cannabis to supplement what your body needs, and it can be an extremely powerful therapeutic tool for a number of conditions and disease states.