Keys that Unlock New Doors in Medicine

Those familiar with the cannabis plant are probably aware of its psychotropic and sedative effects. But the chemical interactions that produce these effects are where the healing power lies. It all begins with molecular compounds known as cannabinoids that together make up a network called the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating many different biological functions, including pain, memory, mood and appetite. Cannabinoids work like a set of keys that unlock special receptors within the body to influence these functions. While endocannabinoids are found within the body, there are other substances outside the body that perfectly mimic endocannabinoids, such as the phytocannabinoids found in the cannabis plant.

Let’s go back to those receptors. Known as CB1 and CB2, they are each located in specific areas of the body. CB1 receptors can be found primarily throughout the brain and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are typically found within tissues associated with the immune system.

CB1 and CB2 were discovered in 1990 and 1993, respectively. But nearly 30 years before their discovery an Israeli researcher named Dr. Raphael Mechoulam isolated the chemically active substances in cannabis known as CBD (cannabinol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). In other words, we understood what was in cannabis before we understood what was taking place in our own bodies.   

So why does THC produce different responses than CBD? It comes down to what set of keys each holds. THC opens the CB1 receptor, which is why it is associated with more heady, psychotropic effects. CBD, on the other hand, holds the keys to the CB2 receptor, unlocking powerful immune system benefits. Both improve our ability to maintain homeostasis—in other words, good health—by complementing our endocannabinoid system in what is known as the entourage effect. Researchers are currently investigating whether the entourage effect of THC and CBD is the result of a cannabinoid deficiency within our body, or if it works just as powerfully no matter how many cannabinoids we produce.

Whatever the case may be, science has proven that the medical impact of cannabis is far-reaching. The list of conditions that can be successfully treated by cannabis includes everything from migraines and fibromyalgia to irritable bowel syndrome, epilepsy and Parkinson’s. Doctors have prescribed medicinal cannabis to treat symptoms such as pain, inflammation and nausea. The more we learn about the relationship between cannabis and the endocannabinoid system, the more we can leverage this relationship to improve our health and extend our quality of life.

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