Think of your body as one giant network that houses many systems and chemicals. Now consider that one of these systems functions with cannabinoids, a set of unfamiliar but intriguing compounds responsible for most of the therapeutic effects of cannabis. This system is called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which remained hidden in plain sight to researchers until as late as the 1990s. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) stayed unknown for so long due to the slow development of cannabis science, a result of nearly a century of near-global prohibition.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is also compatible with endocannabinoids, which are fatty acid neurotransmitters. However, most curious is the fact that plant compounds, and ones as obscure to the modern world as cannabinoids, can offer such a vast array of health benefits. Despite not having the scientific understanding of cannabis, it would seem that ancient people from all over considered cannabis in very high regard as a medicine, from the archaeological evidence we have available.
Cannabis is a plant of more than 400 compounds and 113 cannabinoids, but we know little about most of these. The focus has overwhelmingly gone on two cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Both produce a list of medicinal effects, although the psychoactive properties of the former have remained controversial, due to the potential for abuse. In contrast, CBD is renowned for being non-psychoactive, and essentially opening up many of the advantages of medical cannabis to the wider population. Children with intractable epilepsy, for example, have been treated successfully with CBD-rich cannabis oil produced from natural plant extracts.
CBD is in cannabis and cannabis indica strains, and there are signs that other rare, obscure, but historically-used plants also contain cannabinoids. The majority of cannabinoids are non-psychoactive, however, the potency of their therapeutic qualities is less understood.
The overall balanced body state of homeostasis is not possible unless the endocannabinoid system is also regulated, and CBD helps to do this. In time, as doctors, health experts, and the wider public become more familiar with the endocannabinoid system, the likes of CBD may be available in supplement form, as with omega-3 capsules.
Full-spectrum CBD products have slightly greater medicinal value as a whole-plant extract is used in the manufacturing process, rather than isolated CBD. The federally-permitted low-THC hemp strains grown to be used in CBD products consist of non-intoxicating cannabinoids, and aroma molecules known as terpenes, many of which have health perks.
Mental health awareness has grown in the age of social media, but medical researchers have struggled to develop effective treatments for debilitating disorders such as anxiety and depression. This stall in progress has led scientists to seek answers in new areas, and cannabis studies have thrown up some interesting findings on the causes of certain mental health disorders and have found new ways to potentially treat them by targeting neurological pathways in the endocannabinoid system.
While cannabis oils are often effective from the first dose, the primary class of antidepressants SSRIs can take more than a month to show changes. These drugs may have been an advancement when they came out in the late 1980s, but they are no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century.
With the endocannabinoid system introducing researchers to new receptors, they now have novel ways to influence appetite, mood and even the immune system. Some of the research is primitive and cutting edge, suggesting there’s still much more knowledge to be unlocked. Studies have found that CBD reduces brain inflammation, which may be at the root of depression. The cannabinoid also indirectly increases anandamide in the brain.
For anxiety, CBD is beneficial by enhancing the binding affinity of the g-protein coupled receptor GABA-A. This is the landing point of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that reduces the number of thoughts in the brain by calming overactivity. This mental relaxation prevents worst-case scenario thinking, irrational worries, and rumination. As opposed to SSRIs, CBD produces a natural effect on the brain and does not make such drastic alterations to the organ’s chemistry.
Furthermore, for some patients, SSRIs have been dangerous and damaging – some find the drugs to be numbing and the cause of depersonalization and derealization. SSRIs can also be addictive. Since there are no long-term mental or physical risks to taking CBD, there’s less need for users to be concerned about their consumption.
Quality of life tends to deteriorate as we age due to declining physical health, much of which comes from chronic pain and inflammatory conditions. As many of the stronger treatments for pain are highly addictive, as seen by the opioid epidemic in the United States, patients are left with few options for serious relief. However, CBD does not have the overdose risk that comes with opioids, and while patients may build a tolerance over time, there is no danger in upping the dose, as there are with drugs like OxyContin. Far from inducing nausea as sometime opioid drugs do, CBD boasts anti-nausea effects.
However, the endocannabinoid system also has the power to reduce pain sensation, and the only plant-based compounds that can help achieve this effect are cannabinoids. THC is a replacement for anandamide, while CBD increases anandamide concentrations. How anandamide eases pain is still up for debate, however, the CB1 receptor and the vanilloid receptor (another g-protein coupled receptor) are both thought to be connected to pain perception. Furthermore, mental distractions also help to relieve pain – CBD is a known mood-enhancer, and this may have a positive impact.
More and more seniors in the United States are exploring the medicinal benefits of cannabis, and this makes sense given the unique anti-inflammatory properties of CBD and THC. By controlling immune system response via the endocannabinoid system – research shows endocannabinoids can taper inflammation – conditions like rheumatoid arthritis are more manageable, the pain from swelling and bruises can be alleviated, while wounds can be quickly healed with topical products. The lack of side effects is another important bonus, since most anti-inflammatory drugs, and particularly NSAIDs, have downsides.
Not to mention, inflammation is necessary, to a degree – this has been demonstrated with various treatments for acne. Roaccutane, an acne cream, reduces oiliness in the skin by blocking the sebaceous glands, but its zealous approach causes the skin to become dry, which raises new problems, such as cracking and flaking skin. In contrast, CBD creams help to get the right amount of inflammation.
Hopefully, this has given you an indication of the potential of CBD. How patients choose to consume the compound is entirely up to them, but certain products work better for some conditions than others. For instance, a cream is best for a skin complaint, while CBD oil is more effective for acute pain. Edibles, oils and creams are all worth dabbling with, too.
At present, treatments for many physical health conditions are not sufficient and littered with side effects. Mental health is even further behind, as researchers have struggled to understand the brain, partly because the study of cannabinoids and other obscure compounds has been restricted. But as more anecdotes and clinical studies emerge documenting the therapeutic properties of CBD, common sense must eventually prevail.