From anxiety to PTSD, we review the health benefits of marijuana and how you might be able to use it in your life.
Photo courtesy of LTRMN
From stress relief to reducing seizures, the health benefits of cannabis are vast. The medicinal properties of the herb stem from the unique chemical compounds that it produces. Named after their mother plant, cannabinoids are highly valuable molecules housed inside the resin glands of marijuana plants. When you consume cannabis, these cannabinoids engage with cells that make up the human body. The interaction between these plant compounds and our cells is what contributes to a wide range of beneficial and surprising health effects.
Right from the start, it is important to mention that there is still a lot to learn about the way cannabis affects the human body. Research on the plant and the compounds it produces was stifled for decades, thanks to global cannabis prohibition. While legalization initiatives in countries like Canada open the doors to a new era of cannabis science, scientists in the United States are still barred from growing the herb for research purposes. While it is possible for scientists to perform studies on the plant, receiving permission to access cannabis requires navigation around countless barriers and red tape.
Unfortunately, all of these roadblocks make it difficult to study cannabis in a meaningful way. Without substantial research, many of the health claims regarding cannabis are not backed with hard scientific evidence. At this time, there are still far too few human trials of the plant for comfort. Early laboratory and animal experiments, however, shed some light on the herb’s potential.
Petri dishes and mice may be a far cry from the human body, but this early research is still essential for paving the way to a deeper understanding about the connection between our bodies and cannabis. Based on the limited data available thus far, here are some of general benefits of cannabis for overall health.
Struggling with a bout of insomnia? A little cannabis may be able to lend a helping hand. Early research from the 1980s suggests that the main psychoactive in the plant, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), may stimulate the release of melatonin. Melatonin is a neurotransmitter that gives your body the signal that it’s time for bed. Melatonin naturally increases during the winter time and as the sun begins to set. Cannabis may trigger melatonin release causing feelings of drowsiness after consumption.
Aroma compounds in the cannabis plant may also cause you to feel drowsy. One musk-scented molecule called myrcene is a notable culprit. Myrcene, which is also found in hops and lemongrass, is expected to have muscle relaxant and hypnotic properties. When combined with sleepy THC, you may find yourself ready for a nap. In fact, research has shown that cannabis may decrease the amount of time it takes for you to fall asleep.
There is some controversy around the effects of marijuana on sleep, however. For example, while some research suggests that cannabis can improve slow-wave sleep, high doses of THC may cause the opposite effect. Slow wave sleep is the deepest and most restorative part of the sleep cycle. Too much THC may actually leave you feeling less rested in the long-haul.
Research also suggests that cannabis can limit REM sleep, which is dreaming sleep that occurs just before waking. So, apart from falling asleep more quickly, scientists still have quite a lot to hash out regarding whether or not the herb improves the overall quality of your sleep. Hoping to cut back on the wishy-washy effects of THC on sleep? Try a combination of both THC and non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD).
There is no greater mood-killer than stress. Whether it’s dealing with your boss, a family trauma, or simply trudging through existence in this fast-paced world, the ups and downs of life can certainly leave you feeling anxious and down. Fortunately, there’s an herb for that. Well, when used appropriately, that is.
But, to understand why cannabis eases stress, it’s useful to know a little about how the plant works. The reason why cannabis can have an effect on your health is because it engages a cellular communication network called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a neurotransmitter network which allows cells in different organ systems to send messages to the brain via the nervous system.
Fascinatingly enough, the ECS is all about stress. It is a stress-responding network that seeks to help the body cope with difficult situations. These stressful situations could be anything from emotional trauma to staying awake too long to exercise. The endocannabinoid system helps return the body to its optimal balance, a state known as homeostasis.
So, if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, cannabis compounds may provide a way to intervene and promote a temporary sensation of balance and calm. A small human trial provides some proof of this. Back in 2017, researchers subjected study participants to some stressful scenarios. The first was a mock job interview, the second was an observed game of solitaire. Each time, participants who consumed low to moderate amounts of THC beforehand showed reduced signs of stress and felt more comfortable during each of the experiments.
In high doses, however, the psychoactive actually had the opposite effect. Ultimately, study author Emma Childs suggests that how well cannabis fights stress may depend on how much you consume. “Our findings provide some support for the common claim that cannabis is used to reduce stress and relieve tension and anxiety,” she explains in a press release.
“At the same time,” Childs continues, “Our finding that participants in the higher THC group reported small but significant increases in anxiety and negative mood throughout the test supports the idea that THC can also produce the opposite effect.”
Any herb lover knows that cannabis can have a pain-fighting effect. In fact, pain is one of the most common reasons medical consumers gravitate toward the plant. Already, surveys of medical cannabis patients suggest that consumers are choosing the herb over prescription pain medications, which often come with severe side effects and a high likelihood of addiction.
Studies in cancer patients also suggest that cannabis medicines successfully reduce pain related to the illness, potentially making it easier for patients to tolerate difficult treatments like chemotherapy.
Those hoping to really take advantage of the pain-fighting properties of cannabis would benefit from working with a medical professional. While a topical cream or infused balm may help relieve soreness and pain at the surface level, there are some nuances involved in making sure patients get consistent and reliable results from their herb when it comes to anything beyond basic first-aid.
A recent large-scale study, for example, found no correlation between smoking cannabis and adequate pain relief in Australian patients. The study, however, was conducted prior to the legalization of any medical cannabis program. That means that patients who consumed cannabis were simply smoking whatever they happened to have, rather than using cannabis that has been grown especially for medical use.
Cannabis grown for medical purposes comes in many different preparations and features a wide range of active cannabinoids and terpenoids. These variables were not taken into account by the study.
Similar to both sleep and stress, however, too much THC may not help your pain. In fact, high doses of the psychoactive may actually make you more sensitive to some types of pain. If you’re hoping for the best results, start low and go slow. Only consume as much as you need and then stop. If you overdo it, you might not find the success you’re looking for with the plant.
While some people try to avoid a bad case of “the munchies,” the appetite-stimulating nature of cannabis can be quite therapeutic. According to rodent research, the psychoactive herb may enhance the ability to smell food and thereby make it more enticing. At the same time, cannabis also triggers the release of neurotransmitters that enhance pleasure, allowing you to experience more enjoyment from the task at hand. With chronic consumption, however, some of this pleasure response may be temporarily blunted.
Eating your favorite foods while under the influence of cannabis is a truly exceptional experience. Yet, for those plagued with nausea or a lack of appetite, the ability to rekindle a desire for eating and nourishment is a true gift. To add a little science to back the claim, a 2018 survey of cancer patients found that 92 percent of those with a medical cannabis authorization felt that the herb successfully improved their appetite. All patients reported that they felt that cannabis was helpful for relieving symptoms and improving quality of life.
Did you know that when tissue is damaged, hydrogen peroxide can be released by cells into the surrounding area? That’s right; the stuff you use to whiten your teeth and clean a wound is also made inside your own body in response to an attack. While this inflammatory response is astounding when it comes to protecting against bacterial and microbial infection, chronic inflammation can cause your own bodily tissues to degenerate over time.
Toxins like hydrogen peroxide and nitric oxide are released by immune cells in response to a potential infection. Proinflammatory compounds are what trigger immune cells to activate and gather in a specific region, releasing these abrasive agents. When an immune response lingers in an area for an extended period of time, all of these harsh chemicals begin to aggravate the tissue and can continue to damage your own cells.
While inflammation is a vital response that keeps you alive after an infection, an inflammatory response that runs amuck is a big problem. Fortunately, there is a growing body of research that highlights the potent anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis compounds. Specifically, strains and products high in non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD) appear to be the most beneficial for inflammation.
For example, research has shown that CBD can block the production of inflammation-causing nitric oxide. Other laboratory experiments suggest that cannabis compounds, both synthetic and plant-derived, may halt the activity of immune cells that kick off the inflammatory response to begin with.
Thanks to these potent effects, marijuana compounds are being explored for the creation of new anti-inflammatory medicines. While research is still underway, the implications of this anti-inflammatory potential are vast. Everything from arthritis to depression contains an aspect of inflammation. Finding a way to address this inflammation more safely and efficiently would be life-changing for many patients and their families.
Cannabis compounds are currently being explored as potential remedies for a wide variety of ailments. While the sections above highlighted some of the general medicinal properties of the herb, medical researchers have collected fairly strong data that the plant is helpful for several specific medical conditions too.
In 2017, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine published a comprehensive review that summarizes the known health effects of cannabis. The review is based on the research available today, which is by no means complete. Instead of being viewed as a cannabis Bible, the National Academies’ publication simply highlights what we can say about medical marijuana with a high degree of confidence. When it comes to specific conditions, here’s where cannabis appears to be most helpful so far:
Pain? Nausea? Vomiting? Medical cannabis may be useful for easing the debilitating effects of chemotherapy. In fact, a synthetic drug designed to mimic THC is already prescribed to cancer patients. That drug is called dronabinol (Marinol) and it is a manmade version of the famous psychoactive in the cannabis plant.
Did you know that there is already a cannabis-based drug on the market? Sativex, a medicine developed by GW Pharmaceuticals for the treatment of spasticity and pain related to multiple sclerosis. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a degenerative disease of the nervous system. The medicine uses a combination of CBD and THC, two of the primary chemical compounds in the marijuana plant.
Not only do these cannabis compounds appear to reduce inflammation of nerve cells, but their success in MS provides a jumping off point to explore how the herb could help those with other degenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s Disease, and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Cannabis compounds can have a relaxing effect on the nervous system. So relaxing, in fact, that the herb may be helpful to some patients with epilepsy. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first cannabis-derived medicine available in the United States. The drug, called Epidiolex, is a purified form of CBD.
As it turns out, CBD is both a safe and potent anticonvulsant. In at least one clinical trial, the cannabis compound successfully reduced seizures in around 47 percent of patients with intractable epilepsy. Now, the drug Epidiolex is available for patients with Dravet or Lennox Gastaut syndromes, both severe forms of epilepsy.
There are many reasons why medical cannabis is gaining so much attention. At this point in time, conclusive research is only available for a few specific health conditions. However, that doesn’t mean that more uses for cannabis won’t be discovered in the future. Right now, here are a few of the up and coming areas in cannabis medicine:
While it’s safe to say that cannabis can ease symptoms of chemotherapy, emerging evidence suggests that the herb may actually hold anti-cancer potential. In fact, cannabis compounds have successfully killed tumor cells in both laboratory and animal models. Though, it is important to keep in mind that certain types of cancers may respond better to cannabis compounds than others.
An early proof-of-concept trial provides the first indication that cannabis medicines may actually improve the outcomes of chemotherapy. As Forbes reports, a pharmaceutical combination of both CBD and THC successfully increased the lifespan of those with glioblastoma multiforme by about six months compared with a placebo. Glioblastoma multiforme is an aggressive type of brain cancer. Unfortunately, it does not traditionally feature a high survival rate. The trial was conducted by British GW Pharmaceuticals, the makers of both Sativex and Epidiolex.
Perhaps some of the most fascinating research on the health effects of cannabis may one day offer some good news to those battling the haunting effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Not only does psychoactive cannabis potentially reduce nightmares and promote a good nights’ sleep, but emerging rodent research has found that CBD seems to alter fear-based memories. In fact, mice exposed to a shock trauma showed fewer signs of fear and anxiety after CBD treatment. While cannabis may not be a complete cure for those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, the herb may prove to be a valuable tool for improving the outcomes of talk therapy and reducing the power that a traumatic memory can have on mental and emotional health.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University discovered cannabinoid receptors in an emotional hub of the brain in mice, which monitors anxiety as well as the flight-or-fight response. The authors state this is the first time that cannabinoid receptors have been found in the amygdala, a region of the brain, in a mouse model. It “could be highly important for understanding how cannabis exerts its behavioral effects,” Dr. Sachin Patel, senior author of the study, said in a press release.