by Suzanna Mountain
Have you ever wondered why marijuana gets you high and strawberries don’t? Did you ever wonder if Peter Tosh was right when he said that cannabis was good for asthma? Did you forget to pay attention in 9th grade biology? Never mind, we’ll start from scratch.
Many people question the validity of the array of therapeutic qualities attributed to marijuana. Is it just a joke that the list of symptoms that can be alleviated by medical pot is basically endless? Just a way for anyone and their mother to score some high quality medical grade bud? A hysterical victory of the “legalize it” folks? Seriously, how can one drug treat so many symptoms? To answer this question we must first take a look at one of the most important systems in the human body; the endogenous cannabinoid system.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system is a system inside the human body, made up of transmitters and receptors created by the human body. The miracle of weed is that it creates its own molecules which, when introduced to the human body, can stimulate the already present receptors!!! When cannabinoids are synthesized in the human body they are called endocannabinoids and when they are synthesized in marijuana (or other plants) they are called phytocannabinoids. This system impacts a wide array of physiological processes. As any pothead might guess, these processes include appetite, memory, pain, mood and more. The endocannabinoid system modulates energy intake, nutrient transport and metabolism storage. The endocannabinoid system (ECS for short) is made up of lipids (in this case, tiny fat molecules that act as signals in the bodies nervous system) and their receptors which are found in both the central and nervous system (as in all over the body – brain, organs, immune cells, glands, muscles and digestive system). Let’s look at two physiological systems, and how the endocannabinoid system is responsible for their homeostasis. For those of you who slept through Biology 101, homeostasis is the ability and processes of a organism or part of an organism to maintain internal conditions necessary for thriving despite ever changing external conditions. Take for example body temperature; the body maintains a relatively stable temperature of 98.6 (f) whether the outside temperature is 101 or 30. Achieving and maintaining homeostasis is the primary function of the endocannabinoid system and of medical marijuana. Just about everything the endocannabinoid system is responsible for, phytocannabinoids originating in marijuana can affect.
Cannabinoid receptors are nestled into the cell walls of an extraordinary number of cells in the body. Receptors do just that, they receive. What are cannabinoid receptors receiving? Those tiny lipids (produced inside the body or outside the body) we call cannabinoids, such as anadamide (synthesized in the body) and cannabidiol (synthesized in the marijuana plant). The receptors live on the cell wall so that they can carry lipids (signals, messages) from outside the cell to inside the cell and vise versa. Cannabinoid receptors are the most prolific receptor type in the entire human body. And they don’t just exist in humans! The endocannabinoid system is active in every vertebrate on earth and even some invertebrates!
Believe it or not, cell death, or apoptosis, is a very important function of the human body. Every time a cell or part of a cell goes haywire, the endocannabinoid system causes it to commit cellular suicide. When this system malfunctions, that’s one of the reasons we get cancer. Our body actually has many cancer cells in it at any given point, and the body is fighting them in a variety of ways at all times; sending larger cells to swallow the cancer cells and causing the cell to kill itself for example. Introducing cannabinoids to the body through marijuana intake can catalyze the process of cell death and aid the body in its daily fight against cancer.
Appetite and Digestion
Let’s take a quick look at how endocannabinoids, such as anandamide and 2-AG, affect appetite and digestion. Endocannabinoid activity in the brain stimulates appetite in the hypothalamus and increases the palatability of food. As the food moves through the digestive system, endocannabinoids are responsible for slowing gastric emptying and allowing for the absorption of more nutrients. As the food moves to the colon, endocannabinoids signal the to the brain that one is satiated, thereby decreasing appetite and food intake. For those enduring medical procedures that reduce appetite and palatability, medical marijuana simulates the body’s natural process and can make food seem appealing. This is of enormous importance for the health of those patients.
Peripheral Metabolic Regulation
Cannabinoid receptors in the hypothalamus, liver and elsewhere regulate energy balance. Stimulation of the endocannabinoid system increases food intake and adiposity (getting fatter) while blocking cannabinoid receptors decreases food intake and adiposity. In the liver, when cannabinoid receptors are activated, it can cause lipogenesis (fatty acid production). Using medical marijuana to activate or deactivate cannabinoid receptors in the liver can affect weight gain in whatever direction the marijuana practitioner chooses by isolating specific molecules and applying them in a way which will be absorbed and processed by the liver.
The examples above are two out of literally hundreds of functions affected by cannabinoids. In future posts we will explore more physiological processes and disease management and why medical marijuana is unique in its synergy with the human body.
I once read something beautiful that I’d like to share. Cannabinoids are responsible for homeostasis on the micro and macro levels of our bodies. Just as cannabinoids regulate the health and well being of our cells, our organs and bodies as a whole, so too could they operate as regulators of the community organism by keeping us calm, healthy, kind, funny, joyful, creative and high. Here’s to Cannabis!