Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System
Cannabis has a profound influence on the human body. This one herb and its variety of therapeutic compounds seem to affect every aspect of our bodies and minds. How is this possible? How can one herb help so many different conditions? How can it provide both palliative and curative actions? How can it be so safe while offering such powerful effects? The search to answer these questions has led scientists to the discovery of a previously unknown physiologic system, a central component of the health and healing of every human and almost every animal: the endocannabinoid system. What Is The Endocannabinoid System? The endogenous cannabinoid system, named after the plant that led to its discovery, is perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. In each tissue, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment. Cannabinoids promote homeostasis at every level of biological life, from the sub-cellular, to the organism, and perhaps to the community and beyond. Here’s one example: autophagy, a process in which a cell sequesters part of its contents to be self-digested and recycled, is mediated by the cannabinoid system. While this process keeps normal cells alive, allowing them to maintain a balance between the synthesis, degradation, and subsequent recycling of cellular products, it has a deadly effect on malignant tumor cells, causing them to consume themselves in a programmed cellular suicide. The death of cancer cells, of course, promotes homeostasis and survival at the level of the entire organism. Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids are also found at the intersection of the body’s various systems, allowing communication and coordination between different cell types. The endocannabinoid system, with its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and all of the body’s organs, is literally a bridge between body and mind. The administration of cannabinoids clearly alters human behavior, often promoting sharing, humor, and creativity. By mediating neurogenesis, neuronal plasticity, and learning, cannabinoids may directly influence a person’s open-mindedness and ability to move beyond limiting patterns of thought and behavior from past situations. Reformatting these old patterns is an essential part of health in our quickly changing environment. What Are Cannabinoid Receptors? scientists estimate that the endocannabinoid system evolved in primitive animals over 600 million years ago. While it may seem we know a lot about cannabinoids, the estimated twenty thousand scientific articles have just begun to shed light on the subject. Large gaps likely exist in our current understanding, and the complexity of interactions between various cannabinoids, cell types, systems and individual organisms challenges scientists to think about physiology and health in new ways. Cannabinoid receptors are present throughout the body, embedded in cell membranes, and are believed to be more numerous than any other receptor system. When cannabinoid receptors are stimulated, a variety of physiologic processes ensue. Researchers have identified two cannabinoid receptors: CB1, predominantly present in the nervous system, connective tissues, gonads, glands, and organs; and CB2, predominantly found in the immune system and its associated structures. Many tissues contain both CB1 and CB2 receptors, each linked to a different action. Researchers speculate there may be a third cannabinoid receptor waiting to be discovered. Endocannabinoids are the substances our bodies naturally make to stimulate these receptors. The two most well understood of these molecules are called anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). They are synthesized on-demand from cell membrane arachidonic acid derivatives, have a local effect and short half-life before being degraded by the enzymes fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL). Phytocannabinoids are plant substances that stimulate cannabinoid receptors. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the most psychoactive and certainly the most famous of these substances, but other cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) are gaining the interest of researchers due to a variety of healing properties. Laboratories can also produce cannabinoids. Synthetic THC, marketed as dronabinol (Marinol), and nabilone (Cesamet), a THC analog, are both FDA approved drugs for the treatment of severe nausea and wasting syndrome. Some clinicians have found them helpful in the off-label treatment of chronic pain, migraine, and other serious conditions. Many other synthetic cannabinoids are used in animal research, and some have potency up to 600 times that of THC. Can an individual enhance his/her cannabinoid system by taking supplemental cannabis? Beyond treating symptoms, beyond even curing disease, can cannabis help us prevent disease and promote health by stimulating an ancient system that is hard-wired into all of us? Research has shown that small doses of cannabinoids from cannabis can signal the body to make more endocannabinoids and build more cannabinoid receptors. This is why many first-time cannabis users don’t feel an effect, but by their second or third time using the herb they have built more cannabinoid receptors and are ready to respond. More receptors increase a person’s sensitivity to cannabinoids; smaller doses have larger effects, and the individual has an enhanced baseline of endocannabinoid activity. I believe that small, regular doses of cannabis might act as a tonic to our most central physiologic healing system. Unlike synthetic derivatives, herbal cannabis may contain over one hundred different cannabinoids, including THC, which all work synergistically to produce better medical effects and less side effects than THC alone. While cannabis is safe and works well when smoked, many patients prefer to avoid respiratory irritation and instead use a vaporizer, cannabis tincture, or topical salve. Scientific inquiry and patient testimonials both indicate that herbal cannabis has superior medical qualities to synthetic cannabinoids. People want safe, natural and inexpensive treatments that stimulate our bodies’ ability to self-heal and help our population improve its quality of life. Medical cannabis is one such solution. This summary is an excellent tool for spreading the knowledge and helping to educate patients and healthcare providers on the scientific evidence behind the medical use of cannabis and cannabinoids.
Terpenes, CBD, and “The Entourage Effect”
Most all cannabidiol studies done on animals use a single synthetic molecule CBD molecule which is produced by biochemical labs. These studies are lacking in accuracy because of the absence of other compounds found in plants containing CBD. A better way of performing these studies is with the whole plant extraction which will include CBD, THC, and over 400 other compounds found in the cannabis plant. These compounds interact together and form what we now refer to as “The Entourage Effect”. When heated using low temp vape pens, this phenomenon amplifies the therapeutic benefits of the cannabis plant, making the medicinal value much higher than if these compounds were used by themselves.
One of the things that are important to note during studies of the cannabis plant is this entourage effect, where 100 ml of a synthetic CBD is not the same as 100ml of a CBD-enhanced whole cannabis plant extract. The scientific community calls cannabis polypharmaceutical in that a synergy happens between the plant’s multiple components.
How Do Terpenes Add to the Medicinal Value of Cannabis?
In the case of terpenes, which are aromatic molecules that evaporate at low temperatures and produce aromas that we are all common with. Many scientists and researchers have noted the importance of these terpenes, as they are the basis for the holistic healing modality of aromatherapy. It is these terpenes that give cannabis its distinct flavours and aromas as well they play a part in the plants overall psychoactive effect. When discreetly vaporised at low temperatures, marijuana users can benefit from the entire “entourage effect”.
There are more than 200 terpenes in the cannabis plant, but only a few are in quantity enough to be considered aromatic. Some of these are diterpenes and sesquiterpenes, which are comprised of 5-carbon molecule isoprene which is the basis for all terpenoid compounds. These pungent terpenes give cannabis an evolutionary advantage by repelling insects and animals that might otherwise eat the plant.
And so it turns out, that these terpenes and the “entourage effect” are very beneficial to humans as well. A study in the British Journal of Pharmacology discussed the therapeutic attributes of terpenoids, which are typically lacking in synthetic compounds used in testing.
How Are Terpenes Beneficial?
One example is beta-caryophyllene, which is a component found in many essential oils from black pepper and oregano, as well as many leafy vegetables and of course, cannabis. It is a gastroprotective compound that is fantastic at treating ulcers and also helps manage other inflammatory conditions and auto-immune disorders. Beta-caryophyllene is one of the reasons leafy green vegetables are such a healthy part of the human diet.
Terpenoids and cannabinoids also increase a persons blood flow. They enhance cortical activity and can be useful to at killing respiratory pathogens.
Cannabis’s particular bouquet of terps (terpenes) also plays another important role in the world of the cannabis plant. In combination with CBD, they can increase the benefits of marijuana while lowering the levels of anxiety users sometimes experience.
What Are the Benefits of Low Temp Vaping?
Terpene profiles are different in every strain. Patients should take care to use a vape pen, at times called a dab pen, to heat the terpenes only at low temperatures to obtain the full medicinal benefits. If a patient finds that one particular terpene profile is not agreeable, then they can talk to their local budtender who can recommend a different, more suitable profile. In some cases, it is simple trial and error, but with more and more studies showing the benefits of the “the entourage effect” taking place, we should soon have access to terpene profiles that are dialled in for the patient’s particular condition. Patient must take care to use only low temp vape pens to achieve maximum benefits.