What Makes Cannabis Special?
Twenty-five years ago Dennis Peron, Dr. Donald Abrams, and other pioneers of compassionate care were in the early days of championing the use of medical marijuana as a palliative for people suffering from HIV/AIDS. At that time the concept of cannabis being used "medicinally" was far away from public awareness, but in the following decades not only did it prove to be helpful for those suffering from AIDS, but it turned out that marijuana could ease the side-effects of chemotherapy, calm spastic conditions, alleviate seizures, and reduce pain and inflammation. Even still, there remains people that are skeptical that cannabis could possibly be having a real impact on such a wide variety of conditions. Indeed, even in the medical system the mechanisms of action for cannabis are largely unknown to practicing physicians, even though the data exists and is the research is advanced.
G-Protein Coupled Receptors (GPCRs)
Without getting too post-graduate with the science, cannabinoids (the primary active chemicals in cannabis) interact with some GPCRs, which are receptors on the cell membranes that control cellular responses. There are hundreds of types of GPCRs, and different cannabinoids interact with them in different ways, but one notable interaction that has been well documented is the ability for cannabinoids to trigger programmed-cell-death (apoptosis) in abnormal or cancerous cells. It is for this reason that cannabis is being heavily researched for it's potential in not just treating the side-effects of chemotherapy, but also the cancer itself. You will often find references to CB1 and CB2, which are the primary GPCRs that interact with cannabis. However, the more research that goes on, the more interactions are discovered.
Immune Cell Apoptosis
In Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs, Future Med Chem. 2009 Oct; 1(7): 1333–1349, P. Nagarkatti, et al, it says, "Cannabinoids are potent anti-inflammatory agents and they exert their effects through induction of apoptosis, inhibition of cell proliferation, suppression of cytokine production and induction of T-regulatory cells." In short, cannabinoids cause overactive immune cells to self-destruct, thereby reducing inflammatory responses. This medical journal is a challenging read, but it very clearly explains a variety of mechanisms by which cannabis is effective in combating inflammatory cellular responses. Our topical cannabis infused products are created based upon these principles, and the experiences of those that have used them is a strong testament to the real-world value of cannabis therapies.
"Fats" and the Blood-Brain Barrier
To protect our brains and spinal fluid from the variety of substances that seem to find their way into our bodies, we have what is called the blood-brain barrier. It's a thin, semi-permeable wall that allows very little to pass through it, but it does allow the passage of cannabinoids. Cannabinoids interacting with brain cell receptors has a psychoactive effect that is commonly called the "high", though for many people it is not particularly pleasant. This ability of cannabis to temporarily impact brain chemistry makes it a research target as a treatment for depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other psychological conditions.
The Human Endocannabinoid System
As it turns out, cannabis isn't unique in it's effects. We have, built into our own bodies, a relatively subtle system that controls a huge number of cellular activities called the Endocannabinoid system. It's name comes from endo- meaning internal or endogenous, and cannabinoid, from cannabis. Our bodies make chemicals that act like the ones in cannabis plants, and interact with receptors in a similar way. Archaeology and paleo-anthropology have both demonstrated that use and consumption of the cannabis plant goes back to the earliest days of human development, and it is widely believed that our bodies are adapted to have cannabinoids as part of our diet and ethnobotanical medicines. It has been hypothesized that many modern diseases, notably inflammatory autoimmune conditions and cancer, could be directly related to chronic cannabinoid deficiency, which could explain why cannabinoids turn out to be such an effective treatment.
The Full Spectrum "Entourage Effect"
One of the most complex subjects in cannabis science is the minute interactions of not just the primary cannabinoids like CBD and THC, but the combined host effect of those along with a dozen other minor cannabinoids, and countless terpenes and other volatile active molecules. Much like an essential oil, the scent chemicals in cannabis have their own effect which usually potentiates (increases) that of the cannabinoids. It is generally believed that cannabis works best when it is part of an entourage, and the blending of cannabinoids and terpenes is an art and science that will one day yield masters of the craft, akin to winemakers and perfumers.