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HOW MEDICINAL
CANNABIS WORKS

Attitudes towards cannabis are shifting as credible medical research continues to reveal the plant’s profound therapeutic effects. Many people have experienced the benefits of medicinal cannabis on the human body, so let’s explore its method of action. 

 

The chemical compounds in cannabis affect the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a central component of the health and healing of every human and animal. Scientists estimate that the endocannabinoid system evolved in primitive animals over 600 million years ago.

The endocannabinoids and their receptors are found in the brain, organs, connective tissue, glands and immune cells, all through the body. The ECS is responsible for managing a vast range of physiological processes including mood, memory, pain-sensation, appetite, and regulating the psychoactive effects of cannabis.

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An integrated system

Endocannabinoids are naturally produced by the human body and are chemically very similar to the phytocannabinoids, like THC and CBD, that occur naturally in the cannabis plant. In the body, endocannabinoids are predominantly responsible for regulating various biological responses. Knowledge that our bodies create their own cannabinoids has opened the door to understanding their purpose and for harnessing their therapeutic properties. The endocannabinoid system is linked to a number of important processes, concentrated in the brain, nervous system, and reproductive organs. However, it does not affect regions of the brain controlling heart and lung function, making cannabis neuroprotective. This is one of the main reasons that fatal overdoses of cannabinoids do not occur.

Cannabinoids balance homeostasis  

Homeostasis describes the body’s abilities to keep itself in balance in response to what is going on outside the body. It’s important, as it is the body’s way of keeping ourselves functioning – and alive – in the face of the many things outside of our control. When the body's balance is disturbed, the endocannabinoid system activates and starts making neurotransmitters, called endocannabinoids. These are detected by specific receptors on cell surfaces, found in different body parts like the immune system, organs, and brain. Just like a key fits a lock, endocannabinoids fit these receptors, sending signals to help the body restore its balance, or homeostasis, to help us counteract external changes.

Receptor sites and cannabinoids

The endocannabinoid system’s receptor sites include CB1 and CB2 receptor variants, which respond differently to certain cannabinoids, such as THC, CBD and CBN. CB1 receptors are most prevalent in the central nervous system and are linked to the following benefits: • Modulation of stress and anxiety • Increased appetite • Decreased nausea • Balance of immune system • Inhibition of tumours CB2 receptors are found mostly on cells in the immune system and tend to dominate in fighting inflammation and damage to tissue. Some cells can even contain both types of receptors, each responsible for a different function. There are two major endocannabinoids; 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) and Anandamide (AEA). 2-AG is considered a full agonist of both CB1 and CB2 receptors. This means that it binds with, and fits well inside, both receptors to activate them to stimulate a physiological response. Anandamide is considered a partial agonist of both receptors because, while it binds with and activates the receptors, it doesn’t fit as well inside them and subsequently doesn’t trigger such a powerful physiological response. Once the function that had deviated from homeostasis returns to equilibrium, and the endocannabinoids are no longer needed – the third piece of the system, metabolic enzymes, breaks down and degrades them.

How the system affects our health

Since discovering the ECS and its mechanisms, researchers have worked to further understand how this system may be used therapeutically to treat a wide range of clinical conditions and symptoms, such as to: • Fight cancer • Decrease pain • Prevent neurodegenerative diseases • Promote general health Overall, research indicates that the endocannabinoid system helps ensure that the body’s immune and central nervous systems are running correctly. Finding ways to modulate the endocannabinoid system’s activity opens pathways to a vastly disparate set of chronic diseases and disorders.

How cannabinoids work with the ECS

As scientists learn more about the endocannabinoid system, they also explore the role that cannabis-derived cannabinoids like THC, cannabidiol (CBD), cannabinol (CBN), and others could play in supporting health. Cannabinoids mimic the behaviour of endocannabinoids and interact with the cannabinoid receptors to augment the endocannabinoid system. As the cannabinoids interact with the cannabinoid receptors, they stimulate various physiological responses.

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THE POTENTIAL TO TREAT
MANY DISEASES AND CONDITIONS

A popular theory about how the ECS affects our overall health, is the proposed endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome, or CECD. This suggests that, for some people, the body does not generate enough endocannabinoids (Smith and Wagner, 2014). This concept, originally proposed by researcher E.B. Russo in 2004, further suggests that the deficiency could be the root cause of many autoimmune disorders, including migraines, fibromyalgia, and IBS (Russo, 2004). 

 

By modulating the ECS, several diseases and conditions can potentially be treated, including:

 

  • Pain 

  • Inflammation 

  • Arthritis 

  • Multiple sclerosis 

  • Anorexia 

  • Epilepsy 

  • Glaucoma 

  • Obesity 

  • Parkinson’s disease 

  • Huntington’s disease 

  • Tourette’s syndrome 

Research is also showing interesting developments in the treatment or relief of Crohn's disease and IBS, Cancer, Schizophrenia, Cardiovascular disorders, Alzheimer’s disease.

One of the main obstacles to the acceptance and use of cannabis and its active cannabinoids in medicine is the problem of abuse for its psychoactivity. However, this issue does not arise in a number of possible approaches to the regulation of the endocannabinoid system: 

  • When an antagonist to the CB1 receptor is applied 

  • When the production or transportation of endocannabinoids is altered 

  • When a non-psychoactive agonist to the CB2 receptor, like CBD, is used for therapeutic results (Pacher and Kunos, 2013).

Phytocannabinoids, like the CBD and THC from cannabis, directly affect the endocannabinoid system. However, it has also been shown that non-psychoactive phytocannabinoids from other plants, and even other compounds like terpenes and flavonoids, are picked up by receptors in our endocannabinoid systems (Gertsch et al, 2010). 

Because small doses of phytocannabinoids can encourage the body to create more naturally occurring endocannabinoids and their receptors, it may be possible to bolster the sensitivity of our native systems with regular cannabinoid supplements (Pacher et al, 2006).

 

Extensive studies show great potential for using this vital system to the benefit of patient health. Helius and scientists around the world are engaged on ongoing research to better understand the impact of the endocannabinoid system on our overall health and how supplementing our natural endocannabinoid production with plant-based cannabinoids may play a significant therapeutic role in our wellbeing. 

A brief history of the ECS 

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) was defined in the early 1990’s when Lisa Matsuda announced that her team at the National Institute of Mental Health had first identified a THC-sensitive receptor in the brains or rats. The path to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, however, started more than a century earlier. In 1895, researchers T. Barlow Wood, W.T. Newton Spivey, and Thomas Hill Easterfield became the first to isolate and identify a cannabis-derived cannabinoid, cannabinol (CBN). Over the next 70 years, researchers identified more cannabinoids, including R. Adams and others who identified and isolated CBD in 1940, and in 1964, Ralph Mechoulam and colleagues isolated and identified tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Following those monumental breakthroughs, researchers spent decades exploring those cannabinoids and their properties. It was in the early and mid-1990s Mechoulam and colleagues officially discovered the endocannabinoid system. It happened after he and his team were able to locate and identify two of the body’s naturally produced major endocannabinoids - anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Since then, scientists around the world have worked to learn more about the endocannabinoid system, our naturally occurring cannabinoids, and the ways cannabis alters this balance. In just the last two decades, over 23,000 scientific studies have been published, referencing the therapeutic effects of cannabis.

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