What if cannabis is more than a recreational drug, or medicine, but a nutritional supplement that can prevent deficiencies that may be responsible for everything from neurological pain to insomnia? You may have heard of the endocannabinoid system, and know that ingesting cannabis binds to ready-made receptors within our body. In addition to helping us feel happy and high, the consumption of cannabis can treat everything from nausea to PTSD and is hailed as a medicine by many. But do these illnesses stem from a deficiency of our body’s own cannabinoids? Should everyone be consuming cannabis? Read on to learn what the experts have to say about this controversial, but potentially awesome, theory.
What is the endocannabinoid system?
“The endocannabinoid system is the homeostatic regulator for the central nervous system,” says Dr. Matt Montee, PhD., PA-C. “The name comes from the plant.” We discovered the endocannabinoid system in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. How did humans exist for so long without researching such an important biological system? While the motor system is rather apparent, the ECS works subtly. “The endocannabinoid system is more of a control system. It’s responsible for the cross-coordination between those other primary systems,” explains Harvard cannabis specialist and CEO of Inhale MD, Jordan Tishler, MD. “It’s hard to see it in action, but really what it’s doing is keeping all of those systems functioning at peak levels.”
Cannabinoids from plants, such as THC and CBD found in cannabis, are known as phytocannabinoids. Our body makes its own cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids, which are fat-soluble enzymes. They bind to the two primary receptors, CB1 and CB2. While both exist throughout the body, CB1 receptors are the most highly concentrated in the brain. CB2 is primarily found in the immune and hematopoietic system (which regulates the production of blood). Phytocannabinoids bind to these same receptors. “In particular, its THC that interacts with the receptors,” says Tishler, MD. “CBD can interact with those same receptors, but they don’t stimulate those receptors the way that THC does. Rather they change the way those receptors react to the THC.”
While THC and CBD are the most famous phytocannabinoids, there are over 100, and we are just beginning to identify and understand them. Evidence suggests that cannabinoids help our body maintain homeostasis. Therefore, some medical practitioners and cannabis advocates speculate that just like a serotonin deficiency leads to depression and is treated by stimulating serotonin production, humans can have an endocannabinoid deficiency. Hypothetically, this deficiency is the underlying cause for neurological pain, mood and anxiety disorders, and even cancer. The controversial solution? Consume cannabis. Some advocates say everyone should take marijuana.
Should we all be feeding our ECS with cannabis?
The endocannabinoid system regulates the immune and the endocrine system. “Those are the two culprits for most chronic degenerative and terminal illness,” says traditional naturopath and registered herbalist Dr. Lakisha Jenkins. “We will literally see a healing of the nation if we start to support ECS.” According to Dr. Jenkins, we should view phytocannabinoid supplementation like a nutritional supplement. Rather than view it as strictly recreational or medicinal, it can be a nutritional tool to prevent the development of conditions cannabis currently treats. Your friend who doesn’t smoke weed likely consumed the wrong type, at the wrong time, in the wrong amount.
Tishler, MD is familiar with the claim that we should integrate cannabis into our diets to treat endocannabinoid deficiencies but is skeptical. “It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis, but I wouldn’t operate under the impression that we have any research to support it,” he says. In particular, he is wary of brands that say we all need cannabis. “It’s sold with claims being made by unqualified people without the science to back that up. It becomes far more about making money than taking care of people,” Tishler, MD says.“Sometimes it doesn’t work; people can’t handle the side effects, just like any other medication. It’s good for some people, and it’s not good for other people.”
What is the best way to consume cannabis?
So if you’re someone who does react well to cannabis, what method of intake is best to feed your ECS? Dr. Jenkins names sublingual tinctures as it’s systemic; you can feel it through your entire system. Those who truly don’t want a psychoactive experience can opt for a cannabis suppository or the Pechoti method, in which you put cannabis in your belly button (yes, it’s a thing). Dr. Montee agrees that cannabis has nutritional value. “If a patient really doesn’t want THC there’s full-spectrum CBD. I know some people prefer the isolate, but I think the best answer is using full spectrum products, so the entourage effect comes into play,” he says.
Full spectrum cannabis, as opposed to isolated THC or CBD found in some oil, shatter, and extracts contains all the terpenes, flavonoids, and other cannabinoids. The entourage effect assumes that cannabis is most beneficial when everyone gets to come to the party. Most pharmaceuticals are an isolated compound, but the entourage effect takes us back to plant medicine of indigenous cultures. “Traditional medicine is still practiced in cultures that don’t have access to media, electricity, all of the norms that we call comfort in democracy. They still use plants; they still use botanicals. Isolating constituents and making pharmaceuticals is actually what’s new. We’ve only been doing that for less than 200 years,” Dr. Jenkins says.
While whole plant medicine may take us back to medicine before prohibition, to know if we should consume cannabis to treat an endocannabinoid deficiency, we must look towards the future. More research is the only way to know the true powers, and drawbacks, of the cannabis plant, and that requires the Federal government to reclassify cannabis from a Schedule I substance. “It’s very frustrating that the government is standing in the way of research,” says Tishler, MD. “Cannabis has amazing potential to help people; it’s just that there are no miracle drugs. Everything is going to have pros and cons. The best way we can help those people is to have a rational, nuanced approach.”