How Does Medical Cannabis Work?
Most of us have smoked a joint, at least once.
I think it is because most humans like to play with their state of mind, and why wouldn’t we? Nothing brings a sense of confidence and ease into life, like the knowledge that we can control our lives in some way. This is especially true for people with chronic pain or illness. Sure, we have access to synthetic drugs – but they are the number three killer of humans, so… Cannabis.
Cannabis has been used throughout most of human history as a way to make cordage (string/rope), clothing and shelter. It is a very nutrient dense food as a salad green or as a seed. In Chinese medicine, it has been used as a medicine for almost 5,000 years. Safely and effectively.
As a Canadian, and as a clinician, I am VERY excited to be a participant in the legalization of this AMAZING medicine. This process is a bit tricky and not everyone agrees on the details, or on whether this is a good idea at all. I have people ask me almost every day if I can prescribe Medical Cannabis, and the answer is unfortunately no. At present, only clinicians licensed under the College of Physicians and Surgeons can legally prescribe Cannabis. Most doctors won’t prescribe Cannabis because they haven’t bothered to do the research or (mostly) because there is no Malpractice insurance for errors involving Cannabis.
The Supreme Court of Canada has decided that Naturopaths and Doctors of Chinese medicine can sign a ‘Confirmation of Diagnosis’, which allows people access to the (presently illegal) dispensary system. At this point, neither of these medical profession’s governing body supports a patient’s right to access Medical Cannabis.
Be patient, we are getting there.
So, How Does Cannabis do all of the magic it can do?
Let Me Introduce You to Your Endocannabanoid system
Your Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is an array cellular receptors and the hormone like molecules that activate them. Cell receptors like little locked doorways on the surface of your cells. The molecular keys that open and close these doors, allowing nutrients and wastes in and out of the cell are essential to life. This system has evolved over millions of years and means that, yes, your body produces molecules found in the Cannabis plant. I love telling this to the REALLY anti-Cannabis crowd.
The endocannabinoid system is just beginning to get the research it needs, but so far we know of two primary cell receptors, the Cannabinoid Receptor 1 (CB1) and Cannabinoid Receptor 2 (CB2). When you ingest Cannabis, molecules like THC and CBD activate or interact with these receptors causing a variety of physiological and psychoactive changes. Before I get into the details of what is going on, I want to catch you up on how this got figured out.
Way, way back in the 1960’s an Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam identified that it was the molecule THC (Tetra-hydra-cannabidiol) from Cannabis that makes people ‘high’. This set off a frenzy of research around the world. If THC is active in the body, there must be a molecule already inside us that can make this happen. It took over 20 years, but researchers eventually discovered the molecule and called it Anandamide, (Ananda = Bliss, mide = molecule). Gotta love scientists for that one – the Bliss molecule.
What Does Your ECS do?
Your ECS (Endocannabanoid System) has many essential functions. It turns out there are large volumes of these receptors in your brain, nervous system, immune system, digestive system and all of your glands – all of the tissues that are essential to life and health. This diversity of receptor locations demonstrates how important these molecules are for day-to-day bodily function. They help regulate the following functions:
- Appetite and Digestion
- Immune regulation
- Fertility and Reproductive Health
- Pain Threshold
- Memory and Forgetting
- Temperature Regulation
How exactly that all happens would take a few hours to explain in any detail. I think it is safe to say that you are aware that your body is constantly in a state of fluctuating self-regulation. Without this capacity for maintaining balance (Homeostasis), life wouldn’t work. Most of us know about neurotransmitters like Serotonin and Melatonin, and that they govern things like mood and sleep. Once they are secreted in the body, they roam around telling the rest of your body what to do next. Anandamide and other Endocannabinoids actually determine how long those chemical messengers stay active, which changes everything in how we understand health. Dysfunction of your ECS is like having one of the wheels fall off of your car – time to pull over and pop the hood.
One could say that some aspects of chronic illness, especially illnesses of that are driven by inflammation, are due, in part, to an ‘Endocannabinoid Deficiency’. If your body cannot produce enough Endocannabinoids, you will eventually start feeling a bit ‘off’. The best way to support the health of your ECS is to eat a lot of Omega-3 fatty acids, from things like Salmon, Sardines, Tuna and Hemp Hearts. Or, you could learn to use Cannabis in a safe and medically potent way.
A Deeper Look at Balance
So, let’s say that you have ingested a Medical Cannabis product. Being medical, you definitely didn’t smoke it. And, being medical, it contains both THC and CBD. It takes about 90 minutes for these compounds to be made more bio-available by your liver. Depending on the genetic strain of Cannabis and the background profile of other molecules like Terpenes, the exact nature of your experience will be very different. A Sativa strain is more likely to make you feel creative and focused, while an Indica Strain is more likely to make you relaxed and sleepy. I say ‘more likely’ because everyone is different and there are a lot of other factors at play.
As the THC binds with your Endocannabinoid receptors it actually regulates a large number of metabolic, immune and mood regulators. Yes, THC regulates the regulators. Did I mention Balance?
You have probably heard of the SSRI class of drugs. SSRI stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. I have never seen any serious research that proves this precise function, but the premise is to keep the Serotonin molecule inside the space between neurons. More Serotonin equals less depression. The funny thing is that this is one of the jobs of your Endocannabanoid system. I could give a dozen other examples but all of that would be distracting from the prize. THC can make some receptors more sensitive and others less sensitive. A modern metaphor would be a massive upgrade to your internet.
The bummer about balance is too much of a good thing is often a bad thing. Excess and/or chronic use of THC by itself can force the Endocannabanoid receptors to retreat and become less effective. Too much THC has never killed anyone directly, but it has ruined enough peoples lives and health that all of us need to focus on the reason why we are ingesting Medical Cannabis. Better health through Balance.
As the CBD enters your system, you will not notice as drastically because it is not psychoactive. You will feel more relaxed though because CBD can relax your major muscles and is already used to treat clinical anxiety all by itself. Unlike THC, CBD does not bind to Endocannabinoid receptors directly. Instead, it works on an enzyme called Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which is responsible for pulling excess Anandamide out of circulation. If you think that is bad, go to the head of the class. CBD slows the enzyme FAAH from breaking down your Blissful Anandamide, and therefore making it and other Endocannabinoids available all of your cells. This is why CBD can help with mood disorders without any psychoactive ‘high’.
Essentially, THC works by mimicking your body’s own Endocannabinoids while CBD actually increases the amount of Endocannabinoids in your system.
As much as I am aware of how fun it is to get high, that is a recreational conversation. Or, potentially a substance abuse problem conversation.
From a medical Cannabis point of view, or a ‘heal a complex, chronic and potentially fatal disease’ point of view it is more about the quality of life than anything else. That will always be about balancing all aspect of life and finding the right balance of THC and CBD for your medical condition.
This is just a brief overview of how Cannabis and your Endocannabinoid system work. Now that Medical Cannabis is a ‘thing’, I expect a great deal more research to be coming soon. If I learn of something BIG I will let you know.
Next up: I would like to share a very useful bit of information on a basic Modern Medical Cannabis Protocol. This approach encourages patients to augment their Cannabis with other herbs, nutrients or therapeutic compounds. Welcome to the Future!
Check it out here.
Need Some Support?
If you are looking for some guidance and support healing your body from any chronic condition, I offer a course called 10 Weeks to Abundant Health. This program has helped hundreds of people over the last 15 years regain their vitality and free themselves from dependence on modern chemical drugs.
If you feel that you need to make friends with, or at least tame your chatty, grumpy and judging monkey mind, I also offer a meditation program. If you have never explored meditation or convinced you cannot sit still for more than 2 minutes, then this is the meditation course for you?