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Understanding the science of cannabis is the best possible way to understand why and how the plant is used as medicine.
To begin, we need to understand the concept of homeostasis, or “the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.” In layman’s terms, homeostasis is when things within a biological system are “just right.” Not too hot, not too cold, but that perfect middle ground. This is often referred to as “the Goldilocks zone” and these biological conditions need to be in sync in order for our systems to maintain peak functionality.
Enter the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a communication network that links the systems and functions of the human body and is vital in assisting with everything from pain relief to appetite suppression/stimulation to anxiety to gastrointestinal track functionality and much more. The endocannabinoid system is made up of three important parts:
Cannabinoid receptors: These are found on the surface of cells and monitor the conditions outside of the cell. If conditions outside of the cell begin to change, the cannabinoid receptors deliver that information to the inside of the cell, which launches a cellular response. While there are many cannabinoids, the important ones to be aware of are called CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors make up a large percentage of the receptors in the brain, while CB2 receptors are mostly found outside of the nervous system.
Endocannabinoids: These are small molecules that attach to cannabinoid receptors and activate them. Endocannabinoids are made by cells in the human body.
Metabolic enzymes: These enzymes destroy endocannabinoids after they have served their purpose.
The endocannabinoid system can be found in every major system of the body, including the digestive system, the immune system, the respiratory system, and more. You name it, and there’s an endocannabinoid system response that will trigger if conditions slip out of homeostasis so that the process of regulation can put everything back on track.
So knowing all of this, how does cannabis fit into the equation?
There are two naturally occurring chemicals in the cannabis plant that give it its medicinal properties. They are called phytocannabinoids and terpenes.
Phytocannabinoids are molecules naturally found in the cannabis plant capable of mimicking certain molecules in the human body. They fit into the CB1 and CB2 endocannabinoid receptors mentioned earlier. This is why cannabis has both psychoactive and medicinal effects when consumed.
The most active phytocannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). They both address pain because of the way they bind with endocannabinoid receptors, but they do this in different ways. THC primarily binds with CB1 receptors in the nervous system, so while it addresses pain, it also produces psychoactive effects. CBD primarily binds with CB2 receptors in the immune system, addressing neuropathic pain. So let’s say you have a terrible migraine. When the phytocannabinoids bind to the endocannabinoid receptors, they can block neurotransmitters and this block manifests as a physical reduction of pain.
Terpenes are phytochemicals, meaning they are naturally produced by plants. Terpenes lend different aromas, flavors, and health benefits to different strains or varieties of each plant, whether cannabis or otherwise.
For example, hot peppers have the terpene beta-caryophyllene. This gives them their spicy flavor, as well as anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. These properties can help with things like gastrointestinal issues and pain relief. In fact, some people use a poultice of hot peppers to relieve joint pain caused by arthritis.
Lavender has the terpene linalool. This gives lavender its beautiful aroma, as well as anti-inflammatory, anticonvulsion, and analgesic properties. These properties help with sleep and anxiety relief. This is why the scent of lavender is often used in bedrooms and aroma-therapy.
Chamomile, like the tea, has the terpene bisabolol. This gives chamomile antifungal, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-irritant, and analgesic properties. These properties help with infections and irritations.
Terpenes are found in all different types of plants, including trees. Terpenes have been shown to have effects on immunity, cancer, and neuronal health due to their anti-inflammatory and antitumorigenic properties.
Out of the vast array of cannabis strains each one holds a myriad of terpenes, all with valuable healing properties. For example, the popular strain Blue Dream includes traces of each linalool, pinene, limonene, caryophyllene, and – most abundantly – myrcene. Myrcene is what gives Blue Dream an almost blueberry-like scent, while linalool gives it sweetness.
Not only do the terpenes affect the scent and flavor of the strain, but also the impact that it has on the user. Many report that Blue Dream helps create a calm, euphoric feeling. This is thanks to the high levels of myrcene found within the strain. Some have suggested that eating a mango – which naturally contains heavy amounts of the myrcene terpene – can intensify the psychoactive effects when accompanying cannabis use. Pretty amazing!
The consumption of terpenes, along with the reactions in the endocannabinoid system, combine to produce the medicinal value. Taking care of the human body is a complex process, unique to every individual. Cannabis can be a natural solution to treat many health needs and for those seeking wellness alternatives.
Terms to know:
Phytocannabinoids: Molecules naturally found in the cannabis plant capable of mimicking certain molecules in the human body.
Terpenes: Chemicals naturally found in plants that have many healing properties such as being anti-inflammatory, antitumorigenic, antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, antimicrobial, and anticonvulsant.
Endocannabinoids: Molecules naturally found in the human body that are mimicked by molecules in the cannabis plant.
Cannabinoids: Molecules either in the human body or the cannabis plant that interact when the ones from the cannabis plant mimic the ones in the human body.
Therapeutic Potential for Medical Marijuana: An Educational Primer for Healthcare Professionals
Terpenes: The Magic of Cannabis, by Beverly A. Potter, Ph.D.
Terpenes from Forest and Human Health
Medium: “If You’re Buying Your Weed Solely Based on the THC Level, You’re Doing It Wrong”