In June 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration approved a drug derived from the Cannabis plant for the treatment of a rare form of Epilepsy in humans. It was the first FDA-approved drug ever derived from cannabis, and a celebratory moment for those of us who believe and respect the history of the plant’s various uses, particularly as a medicinal therapy.
Throughout much of human history, Cannabis has been treated very differently than how it is now in modernity. Cannabis has played a medicinal role in many cultures going as far back as 10,000 years, when the ancient Chinese began using it in pottery, clothing and medicine.
Used for thousands of years as a health supplement, there’s a solid foundation for the plant’s use in medicinal functions. There are many chemicals in the Cannabis plant that can’t be found elsewhere, which interact beneficially with human and most animal bodies in ways that are only now being rediscovered.
What is Hemp?
Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis plant that is legally cultivated for a wide range of uses in the United States. Unlike common varietals, hemp is different than those cannabis-derived products cultivated for their high THC content and sold as medicinal or recreational marijuana. Hemp, on the otherhand, has negligible THC content and high CBD content.
What Makes Hemp Products Medicinal?
We’ll do our best to provide you with a high-level introduction to how hemp products work, but it’s worth doing your own research – clicking through the links provided here will give you a good starting point.
Here’s how it works: inside all mammals is a system of neurotransmitters called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). As described by Cerebrum Magazine in November 2013;
Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. With its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and virtually all of the body’s organs, the endocannabinoids are literally a bridge between body and mind. By understanding this system, we begin to see a mechanism that could connect brain activity and states of physical health and disease.
The cannabinoids that our bodies create participate in a wide variety of physiological and cognitive processes from pain sensations and mood modulation, to the body’s response to exercise, and motivation related to reward stimulus. This system may be the only neurotransmitter system in the body with a bi-directional communication path. In other words, the ECS may act as a two-way communication pathway between various organs and the brain – in a way that no other bodily system can. As such, the ECS is believed to act as “a key modulator of homeostasis, a natural balance in the body” according to Dr. Ethan Russo, neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher.
Internal and External Cannabinoids
Phytocannabinoids (phyto meaning ‘of a plant’, as opposed to endo meaning ‘internal, or within’) are cannabinoids found in plants. When ingested, phytocannabinoids interact with our ECS in a variety of ways. Scientists have identified as many as 113 phytocannabinoids from the hemp plant, as well as phytocannabinoids found other plants including those found in echinacea.
THC and CBD (both from the cannabis plant) garner the most attention in media and research, and have been identified to mimic critical endocannabinoids naturally produced in the body. “When someone uses cannabis medicinally, they are keying in to [the ECS’s] mechanisms which are sometimes deficient,” says Dr. Ethan Russo.
The endocannabinoid system was first identified in 1992. Within the ECS are two kinds of cannabinoid receptors; CB1 and CB2 (similarly found in both humans, our pets, and most other complex organism).
CB1 receptors are found primarily in the central nervous system with the highest concentration of receptors found in the brain. CB1 therapies are believed to predominantly affect anxiety, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and motor control functions.
CB2 receptors are found primarily in the immune and nervous system. They are believed to be the source of cannabinoids’ ability to provide anti-inflammatory and other pain-related therapeutic effects.
The Entourage Effect: What It Is And Why It Matters
As the cultural perception and legal framework around cannabis and hemp changes in the US and around the world, scientific research into the ECS, cannabinoids and hemp is increasing. For this reason, we are just now starting to learn some of the details of how the ECS works, and how endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids interact to affect us (and our pets).
Adding to the complexity of understanding cannabinoids, there is reason to believe that the way various cannabinoids interact with the ECS is modulated and changed by the presence of other compounds. These are called terpenes and flavonoids, which are also naturally occurring in the hemp plant.
This interplay is called the entourage effect. The entourage effect causes different cannabinoids to interact with the body in different ways. For example, one cannabinoid or terpene might primarily reduce pain while another profile might primarily induce drowsiness.
Benefits of Hemp
Although formal scientific investigation of cannabis, phytocannabinoids and the ECS has historically been difficult due to various legal policies, laws and perceptions are changing thanks to the support of doctors, politicians, and activists whose lives have been improved by the plant’s medicinal benefits.
Knowledge and education of the Cannabis plant and its applications continue to grow. Israel was for years at the forefront of research in the space, with scientists investigating cannabis and hemp products as a palliative and possibly curative tool when addressing a variety of debilitating human conditions.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, an American Neurosurgeon and Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN came out in support of medical cannabis, stating, “we have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.”
Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the most important cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, and has no psychoactive effects. In other words, it doesn’t get the user ‘high’. CBD’s visibility is growing globally. The demand for CBD products derived from cannabis, which clash with the laws of many countries, led the World Health Organization to issue a report in which they found no public health risks or abuse potential for cannabidiol in humans.