So, what are cannabinoids? Here’s the science in a nutshell. Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds in the cannabis plant that interact with pathways in the body — known as receptors — which in turn affect symptoms like pain, inflammation, spasms and nausea. (CB1 receptors are responsible for cannabis’ psychoactive effects, while CB2 receptors lead to its anti-inflammatory effects. To learn more, go here and here.) What’s really amazing about cannabinoids: they work by imitating compounds — called endocannabinoids —that our bodies already make on their own. For more on cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system, click here and here.
The best-known cannabinoid is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — the compound that gets you high. But for all the hype around its role in getting users baked, scientists have discovered that THC, in appropriate doses, is also effective at treating nausea and vomiting, pain, asthma, depression, PTSD and glaucoma. It also works as a sleep aid and appetite stimulant.
Additionally, despite an unfounded reputation for frying brain cells (cannabis affects the brain, yes, but it doesn’t kill brain cells), clinical studies like this and this show that THC, in correct dosages, actually contributes neuroprotectant benefits, meaning it can protect the brain against the long-term damage of injury resulting from seizures, aging, drug toxicity or lack of oxygen.
The other compound in cannabis that deserves attention is cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not have psychoactive effects — meaning it doesn’t get you high. As noted in Leaf Science, a review published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology shows that CBD appears to reduce nausea and vomiting; suppress seizure activity; combat inflammation, neurodegenerative disorders and cancer cells; and work as an antidepressant. It also has a big fan base among those suffering from insomnia and other sleep issues (see our Cannabis and Sleep page for more information)
While THC and CBD might be the best known of the cannabinoids — as well as being the two generally found in the highest concentrations in cannabis — there are some 113 known chemical compounds in the cannabis plant, all of which seem to address different health issues. Cannabinol, or CBN, for example, helps with sleep.
CannLabs provides a snapshot view of how cannabinoids affect different systems throughout the brain and body.
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