We touched on the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in a previous post. The ECS is the recently discovered system in our body that helps keep our other systems in a state of balance. Cannabinoids are chemicals in the cannabis plant that interact with this system. Though research on the endocannabinoid system is still in its early stages, several of the chemicals in the cannabis plant have been isolated and work is being done to discover the ways they affect the human body.
Science hasn’t yet unlocked all of the secrets in cannabis, but here is a short list of things we do know about the active chemicals that make it a promising medicinal treatment.
- THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive element in cannabis. In addition to producing the high it is also a moderate pain reliever. It is also one of several cannabinoids that acts as a neuroprotectant, preserving neuron structure and function in the brain. This neuroprotectant factor is what makes cannabis helpful in treatment of traumatic brain injury and neuro-degenerative diseases. THC also stimulates appetite and decreases nausea.
Some research indicates that THC can aggravate schizophrenic tendencies in people biologically disposed to them, and it can also affect memory.
- CBD (cannabidiol) is the other most prevalent cannabinoid, is non-psychoactive, is a neuroprotectant, and is the chemical currently thought to have the most medicinal uses. It is most associated with relieving symptoms of seizure disorders (it is the primary cannabinoid in Charlotte’s Web, for instance), and can be used to relieve inflammation, spasms, anxiety, and nausea. CBD can offset the psychological effects of THC, and it can also lessen the effect that THC has on memory.
THC and CBD are the prime cannabinoids and one or both of these will appear in most medical cannabis in the highest concentrations. The rest of the cannabinoids below appear in much lower percentages in cannabis plants, but still play a role in the effects of cannabis.
- CBN (cannabinol) is a product of the degradation of THC, and so does not appear in the fresh plant – its content increases the longer cannabis sits in storage and is exposed to light and air. It is only mildly psychoactive, and can aid in sleep.
- CBG (cannabigerol) is not known to have a hallucinogenic or psychoactive effect, however it enhances the overall effects of cannabis. It does have anti-inflammatory properties.
- THCV (tetrahydrocannabavarin) only appears in certain strains prevalent in central Asia and southern Africa. It can lessen the psychoactive effects of THC, can lessen the effects of panic attacks, and can be an appetite suppressant.
- CBDV (cannabidivarin) has only been reported in indica strains from northwest India, and hashish from Nepal. Recent studies have shown promise in CBDV’s effects on epilepsy.
- CBC (cannabichromene) is not psychoactive. It appears in cannabis varieties native to the tropics, and it has anti-inflammatory and moderate pain relieving properties.
There are over 80 total cannabinoids that have been identified in the cannabis plant, and these listed are only the ones that have been researched so far. New data is constantly being discovered on the isolated chemicals in cannabis and what they might mean for the treatment of illnesses.
The Entourage Effect
Some companies have been developing medicines based on isolated cannabinoids (CBD-based Epidiolex) or synthetic cannabinoids (synthetic THC Marinol) and while studies have shown positive results they are often less positive than the successes reported by patients using whole-plant cannabis. This may be due to the Entourage Effect.
The idea behind the Entourage Effect has been around for nearly as long as we have been scientifically studying cannabis. The researcher who first identified THC, CBD, and the first two endocannabinoid receptors stated that he believed these chemicals in cannabis were more effective working with each other than when used alone.
This can be seen in the way psychoactive and memory-lessening effects of THC are weakened in strains that also have high CBD and THCV, or in the way CBDV works alongside CBD to lessen the symptoms of epilepsy. It’s not yet fully known how each cannabinoid affects all of the others but even at these early stages in the life of medical cannabis research it’s clear to see that these less prevalent cannabinoids do have a role in the effectiveness of treatment.
There’s still a lot of research to be done, but right now it’s fairly clear that while THC and CBD hog the headlines and have positive effects individually, there is something to be gained from whole-plant cannabis.