She Cured My Glaucoma with Science!: We know medical marijuana works, but how?

Why does smoking a joint quell the feeling of nausea? Why does eating an edible relieve the sensation of pain? How does CBD offer relief from seizures? The answers to these questions involve a complex internal system called our endocannabinoid system (ECS). Short for “endogenous” cannabinoid system, our ECS is a neuro-modulatory system that works in our brains, endocrine and immune tissues. The three primary components of this system include the two main cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2), the molecules that bind to them (the cannabinoids) and the enzymes that synthesize and break down those molecules.

Only relatively recently, around 1990, were scientists able to locate and map some of our cannabinoid receptors. Since then, these receptors have been found throughout both the central and peripheral nervous systems. CB1 and CB2 are the two first and most commonly studied cannabinoid receptors, but researchers predict there are more to come. CB1 is the most common receptor in our brains and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors reside in some peripheral organs and primarily the immune tissues. When a cannabinoid binds to a receptor, that receptor is “activated” and sends out messages that help maintain optimal health. Activation of the CB1 receptor is associated with relief from pain, nausea and depression. Activated CB2 receptors help regulate appetite, chronic pain and inflammation. In fact, CB2 receptors have been found to multiply at sites of injury or inflammation. The exact distribution of our receptors is unique to each of us, which is why we all have different experiences when using cannabis and even more of a reason why more research is necessary to expand our knowledge about its medicinal benefits.

When it comes to the cannabinoids that bind to our receptors, their shapes make all the difference. Depending on their structure, these fat-based molecules will either act as agonists or antagonists. An agonist will bind to the receptor and activate it as usual, but an antagonist will bind to the receptor and block its activation. Cannabis is well known for relieving nausea and inducing hunger, but recently, a correlation between lower obesity rates and cannabis users has become apparent and is being studied as a potential mechanism for weight loss research. This relationship between cannabis and a healthy body weight is theorized to be due to the activation of CB1 receptors, which regulate our appetite, not simply stimulate it.

A number of fascinating things happen when CBD stimulates our CB2 receptors. For example, when the CBD molecule blocks the receptor site, the enzyme responsible for breaking down certain cannabinoids (FAAH), cannot bind to it. This results in cannabinoids remaining present in our bodies for longer periods of time, prolonging the effectiveness of their medical benefits.

Endo-cannabinoids are the cannabinoids created by our bodies, the prefix “endo” meaning internal or within. The two that have been mainly studied so far are called 2-AG (2-arachidonoyl glycerol) and anandamide (arachidonoyl ethanolamide). Both of these endocannabinoids frequently bind with our CB1 receptors, but 2-AG mainly binds with our CB2 receptors. Exo-cannabinoids are cannabinoids that are created outside of our bodies. These include the phytocannabinoids that we get from cannabis. Cannabis’ most famous compound, THC, is known for primarily binding with our CB1 receptors while CBD predominantly works on our CB2 receptors. The cannabis plant has 113 different identifiable phytocannabinoids and scientists predict finding many more receptors to match them. When there is a lack of endocannabinoids to bind to our receptors, we are in a state of what is called Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD). Some treatment-resistant diseases are now being attributed to endocannabinoid deficiencies. A few of the conditions that fall into this category include IBS, fibromyalgia and migraine headaches. As for CBD and its effect on epilepsy and seizures, much more research is required in order for us to understand this complex correlation. It’s theorized that it involves a systematic combination of both antagonism and antagonism within the ECS as well as aspects of other biological systems.

Despite holding multiple patents that demonstrate the healing properties of cannabis, the US federal government refuses to “officially” acknowledge its medical benefits, leaving federal funding for research unavailable, which serves only to obstruct science and perpetuate the needless suffering of patients. This prohibitory mentality toward cannabis is not only irrational, it is toxic to the advancement of our civilization. Why ignore scientific evidence that certain medicines can heal us more effectively than the existing methods? Thankfully state’s rights exist because as Clint Werner aptly poses in Marijuana: Gateway to Health: “Cannabis won’t kill you, but a lack of cannabinoids could.”

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