You’re probably already familiar with THC and CBD. But do you know how these cannabinoids found in cannabis (a.k.a. phytocannabinoids) interact with our bodies? And did you know that our bodies produce compounds similar to these cannabinoids through what is known as the endogenous (i.e. originating from within our bodies) cannabinoid system?
So, what exactly is the endogenous cannabinoid (or endocannabinoid) system? The endocannabinoid system regulates mood, relaxation, eating, sleeping, and forgetting, among other things. It’s responsible for striving towards and maintaining bodily homeostasis. It also allows cannabinoids to interact with our bodies and minds by activating cannabinoid (aka CB) receptors throughout the body.
Although there are over 100 phytocannabinoids, two — THC and CBD — have been more thoroughly studied than others and are more well-known. These studies give us a glimpse into the many recreational and therapeutic properties of cannabis.
Perhaps the most well-known of the 100+ cannabinoids is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It activates CB1 receptors which are mostly found in the nervous system and brain. CB1 receptors regulate mood, appetite, sleep, memory, and pain sensation. By activating CB1 receptors and reducing the release of neurotransmitters, it produces the “stony” high it’s known for. This high effect can be beneficial to things like mood and sleep. It can also have therapeutic effects like anti-nausea or pain relief.
On the other hand, over-consumption of THC can lead to building a tolerance which diminishes its overall effects. This happens when repeated activation reduces and weakens CB1 receptors. Over-consumption can lead to problems with sleep and memory.
Knowing how exactly to gain therapeutic benefits from THC without over-activation still needs to be researched. But the good news is periods of abstinence can reduce THC tolerance. Plus, combining THC and CBD or other cannabinoids can temper its less-desired effects.
While THC activates CB1 receptors, cannabidiol, or CBD, alters the shape of these receptors and activates CB2 receptors instead. CB2 receptors are found mostly in the immune and gastrointestinal systems and the brain. Activating CB2 receptors not only produces anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects, but it also counteracts the effects of THC. CBD also has therapeutic benefits ranging from anti-anxiety and anti-nausea to preventing seizures.
Aside from interacting with the endocannabinoid system, low doses of CBD can also activate serotonin receptors (aka “the happy brain chemical”). High doses can activate other receptors, possibly accounting for its antiepileptic and anti-cancer properties.
CBD as Medicine
CBD’s long-term consequences still need to be assessed. However, it has minimal side effects (e.g. exhaustion) and both adults and children tolerate it well. In fact, the Stanley brothers of Colorado produced a strain of cannabis very high in CBD and very low in THC in order to treat children suffering from epilepsy. One of these children (Charlotte Figi) went from having 400 seizures a week to 0-1 a week after starting treatment with the CBD oil. She was even able to stop taking pharmaceutical drugs.
Rick Simpson has demonstrated CBD’s anti-cancer effects by curing his and others’ cancers with a concentrated cannabis oil.
Since then, a cancer research lab at the Technology Institute of Israël has confirmed anti-cancer properties. They also found that particular strains can affect specific cancer types. They are currently using a database to track which cannabinoid ratios work for which conditions. This will increase consistency when using cannabis for therapeutic benefits. Plus, it will have profound effects on what we know about cannabinoids and how we can use them.
The Future of THC and CBD
Both CBD and THC carry benefits and side effects. When used in the correct ratios and amount, they can have tremendous results. In fact, the idea of using cannabis therapeutically goes far back in world history (including in the US prior to prohibition). However, the government needs to reschedule cannabis in order for more clinical testing to take place.
As of 2016, the DEA has allowed any institution to apply for rights to grow cannabis. There have been continual efforts to reschedule and declassify cannabis with no success yet. Continually doing your own research, keeping up-to-date with cannabis law, sharing your knowledge and getting involved are some of the best ways for you to help shift to a more cannabis-friendly future.