The therapeutic components of the cannabis plant are contained in the resinous glands (called trichomes) that exist on the plant surface, with the highest density on the female flower. One of the medically active chemical categories in the resinous glands is a group of plant chemicals called cannabinoids or phytocannabinoids. There are over 70 cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. The most well known cannabinoids is the primary psychoactive chemical in cannabis, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). While THC is what makes cannabis popular as a recreational drug, it is but one of over 400 compounds derived from the plant that may contribute to its therapeutic effect (Guzman, 2009).
“Research on its psychological effects [that of the cannabis plant] led directly to the discovery of a new chemical signaling system in the human body which is now recognized as playing a crucial role in regulating our neurology and physiology (Werner, 2011, p. 9).” Would it surprise you to know that cannabinoids exist in the human body? They also exist in most living creatures, and possibly even in single-celled-organisms. Endocannabinoids are produced in the human body to help govern the physiological process of:
- pain modulation
- immune function
- newborn suckling
- appetite reward
- inflammation regulation (Abrams, 2011).
This new found understanding of cannabis, and the biological systems of the human body, and their integration provides profound opportunity for advances in managing and altering the disease process for a wide variety of illnesses. Clint Werner nails it in his book Marijuana Gateway to Health, when he writes, “Marijuana is beginning to emerge from under a cloud of contempt because it has been at the center of one of the most exciting and under appreciated developments in biological science in recent times.”
In 1988 the first cannabinoids receptor (molecule on the outside of a cell that receives a signal for the cell to do something specific) known as CB1, was discovered in humans. The receptors reside primarily in the brain with the highest concentration in the basal ganglia, the hippocampus, and cerebellum (Guzman, 2009). This receptor is the one that receives THC thereby activating its euphoric properties. Additionally, the function of the CB1 receptor is for appetite, immune function, muscle control, pain, inter-ocular pressure, cognition, reward mechanism, thermoregulation, and emesis (nausea and vomiting) (Abrams, 2011).
In 1993, a second cannabinoid receptor was found in the macrophage (type of white blood cell) cells in the spleen with the highest concentrations in the natural killer cells strongly suggesting a role in immune function, cell proliferation, inflammation and pain (Guzman, 2009).
Recent science shows that different cannabinoids and other components in cannabis, which have little to no psychotropic effect, may actually hold more therapeutic promise than THC. (Angelo A. Izzo Francesca Borrelli Raffaele Capasso, 2009). A few of the most studied cannabinoids beyond THC are Cannabidiol (CBD), cannbichromene (CBC), cannabigerol (CBG), tetrahydracannabvarin (THCV), cannbidivarin (CBDV), cannabinol (CBD). Each of these phytocannabinoids have multiple benefits to improving the health of the human body. See Dustin Sulak’s eloquent Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System on the NORML website for a great overview of the endocannabinoids system.
While THC, the most common cannabinoid in cannabis, is known for the high people get from inhaling/ingesting marijuana, it also relieves pain and inflammation and is an anti-spasmodic and muscle relaxant. In clinical trials, THC has been proven to reduce levels of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in glioma (brain cancer) cells. This is important because a reduction in VEGF means that brain cancer tumors are unable to grow the new blood vessels they need to sustain themselves, grow and spread. This discovery offers great promise for the treatment of brain cancer (Blázquez, González-Feria, Alvarez, A, Casanova, & Guzmán, 2004).
THC is also a powerful neuroprotective, antioxidant and has 20 times the anti-inflammatory power of aspirin and twice that of hydrocortisone (Russo, 2011).
CBD is the second most common cannabinoid in medical marijuana and the most common in hemp plants (Russo, 2011). CBD rich cannabis provides potent therapeutic benefits without the euphoria or lethargy of many high THC varieties. CBD and THC are believed to have synergistic effect meaning that when they are both present at therapeutic levels they are more effective together than they are alone. While THC is widely known for its psychoactive properties, CBD may be best known for its ability to counterbalance anxiety, tachycardia, hunger and sedation caused by THC (Russo, 2011).
CBD, along with other cannabinoids was once considered a minor cannabinoids under the shadow of THC. What we know now is that CBD is as beneficial and versatile a cannabinoid as THC in addressing many hard to manage conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, epilepsy, antibiotic-resistant infections, alcoholism, PSTD and neurological disorders (O’Shaugnessy’s News Service, 2011). CBD is different however in that it does not have a strong binding affinity for the CB1 and CB2 receptor, thus it works in the body through different direct and indirect pathways. For a more thorough explanation of how and why CBD works in the body, read the article CBD: How it Works by Martin A. Lee. The following is a basic list of how CBD can benefit the human body:
- Potent anti-oxidant that is stronger than vitamins C and E. The combination of THC and CBD make an even stronger anti-oxidant (Lee, 2011).
- Powerful analgesic that seems to work especially well for traditionally difficult to treat neuropathic pain (Lee, 2011).
- Neuroprotective agent that is thought to help prevent Alzhiemer’s and other age related neurodegenerative disorders (Lee, 2011).
- Serotonin balancing agent which acts as an antidepressant, and has a positive impact on reducing anxiety, addiction, appetite, sleep, pain perception, nausea and vomiting (Lee, 2011). Serotonin also affects your ability to rest, regenerate and find serenity (Eric Braverman, 2004, p. 138)
- Regulates blood pressure.
- Facilitates bone re-absorptions.
- Cytotoxic to breast cancer and other cancer cells while being a cyto-preservative to healthy cells. (Russo, 2011)
- Agent against methicillin-resistant Strephylococcus aureus (MRSA), the staph infection that plagues many hospitals today (Lee, 2011).
While there is so much more to learn about CBD and how and why it works in the body, there is enough compelling evidence that leads researchers to believe that whole plant cannabis therapeutics offers great promise for society. One day, CBD will likely become a powerful and widely accepted healing agent used for many different ailments.
Unfortunately, CBD has largely been bred out of much of the cannabis available in the U.S., U.K. and Europe while THC content has been increased because of past emphasis on recreational use. Thanks in part to a group called Project CBD and its supporters, we now know that about one in every 750 samples being tested in California are CBD rich strains (Project CBD, 2012). CBD rich strains are those with 4 percent or higher CBD content. This information makes it possible for the pendulum to swing the other way towards more therapeutic balance or at the very least makes it easier to breed and grow plants that are rich in CBD. As more data becomes available, cannabis breeders/growers around the world are striving to grow marijuana with higher CBD levels to create better medicine. To learn more about Project CBD and support their research efforts please visit their website at www.projectcbd.org.
Cannabinol (CBN) is a lesser understood cannabinoid. Scientific research is frequently done first on rats, monkeys and other animals before doing so in human models. To date, there is conflicting research on CBN between the animal and human models. However, what we do know is that CBN is usually found in aging cannabis and increases the effect of THC. CBN increases testosterone production and plasma concentration of follicle-stimulating hormone. It is also an anti-convulsant and anti-inflammatory. Because CBN has a three-times greater affinity for the CB2 receptor, it s believed to have a greater effect on the immune system than the central nervous system (John M. McPartland, 2001).
Cannabichromene (CBC) while it is the fourth major cannabinoid, it is generally found in only tropical strains of cannabis. It is thought to be superior to THC and CBD in its antifungal and antibacterial activity showing great promise for topical and internal uses. On the flip side, while CBC does inhibit the cellular inflammatory response like THC and CBD, it does not do so at the same effectiveness (John M. McPartland, 2001, p. 108).
Cannabigerol (CBG) is a potent antibacterial that is proven superior to THC, CBD and CBC against gram-positive bacteria, mycobateria and fungi. Although CBG exists in very small amounts in cannabis, it is the biosynthetic precursor to THC, CBD and CBC meaning the body will convert CBG to another cannabinoid.
Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is found in indica and afagnica varieties of cannabis. While this is not a primary cannabinoid it is important for two primary reasons: it is being considered at a biochemical marker for illicit drug use because it is not a metabolite of Marinol and easily detectable in drug testing and it may be clinically effective in the treatment of migraine headaches (John M. McPartland, Cannabis and Cannabis Extracts: Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts?, 2001)