How does cannabis work on the mind and body?

There is a lot of confusion and misconception regarding how cannabis works on the body and mind. I thought I would take a second to explain and clarify some of the misinformation.

What is quite fascinating is that our own bodies produce “cannabis-like” molecules which we call endogenous cannabinoids. These cannabis-like molecules then enter the brain and immune system (primarily) and go to work regulating: appetite, mood, inflammation, cardiovascular functioning, metabolic homeostasis, sleep and pain perception. This system is necessary for our survival. What’s fascinating is that even small nematodes have these endogenous cannabinoids in their body.

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Our cannabis molecules act on a system in our body known as the endocannabinoid system. The system has receptors in the brain, immune system and is also found throughout the body lining our organs and skin. When endogenous cannabinoids bind to these receptor areas one begins to experience the benefits of cannabinoid therapy. As you read this article your body is at work making these cannabis-like molecules. We also know that the “runners high” many people report is part of your body releasing larger amounts of endocannabinoids. Yoga and meditation can also boost endocannabinoids. It is no wonder I often prescribe exercise, meditation and yoga to all my patients as part of healthy living. It is part of developing and promoting a healthy endocannabinoid system.

Nature seems to have created the cannabis plant which is far more complex in cannabinoid options than our own bodies can produce. The cannabis plant has closer to 100 cannabinoids compared to our own bodies which make closer to 10 (known to date). The most popular plant cannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). These two are also likely the most medicinal ingredients in cannabis strains given their higher concentrations compared to other ingredients. I like to call cannabinoids level one ingredients in the plant. There are other ingredients known as terpenes and flavonoids, which I call level 2 and level 3 ingredients, respectively. They are also important in producing varied medicinal effects but I will save that for a different discussion. More commonly we appreciate the aromas and colors they produce in the cannabis flower. See below for some terpenes commonly found in the cannabis plant and appreciate the overlap we fine throughout nature.

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When a patient chooses to boost their endocannabinoid system through medical cannabis they are enhancing the effects of their bodies own system with plant cannabinoids. This leads to both mind and body symptoms.

In the brain THC will bind to receptors and lead to deep relaxation, reducing of nerve pain, muscle spasms, reduce pain/inflammation and boost our appetite. THC is also what is responsible for the “high” or euphoria people experience. THC is the ingredient that produces some side effects including: sedation, dizziness, dry mouth, short-term memory loss and a racing heart. Sometimes THC combined with specific terpenes (level 2 ingredients) can cause a racing heart and energy which can make someone feel anxious, paranoid or in rare circumstances hallucinate. This side effect can be eliminated or minimized if a patient is educated well by a knowledgeable physician on which strains to avoid if they are at risk for this side effect (not everyone is at risk for this side effect). Side benefits often reported are happiness, creativity and mental clarity.

CBD on the other hand works more on our body and allows our body to make more serotonin and boost our own endogenous cannabinoids. Interestingly, CBD can block some of the THC from working. CBD is responsible for muscle relaxation, reducing inflammation, stimulating bone production and can improve seizures. CBD does not have the side effect of producing a “high” or euphoria. In fact there are very few reported side effects from patients taking pure CBD (sometimes a bit of fatigue/drowsiness but even this is rarely reported). CBD is being used more commonly today as an anti-anxiety, anti-depressant and being researched as an anti-psychotic. It may have great utility in mental health disease. It can help patients with chronic pain as well, but in my experience it does not always work for these patients. A combination of THC and CBD seems to work best for the majority of pain conditions.

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When I meet patients and prescribe cannabis I try to selectively determine which ingredients or combination of ingredients will be best for them given their condition, medical history and medications. I combine all of this information to produce a very personalized and custom treatment plan designed to improve their health and well-being. There is still experimentation that is often required and no two patients require the same mix of cannabinoids. In Canada, we have a licensed producer system which regulates cannabis production and distribution. The benefits to me as a physician is I can control the THC and CBD amounts patients receive given the regulatory framework in place. This is important when using cannabis as a medicine. As a medical doctor I do not ignore that sometimes pharmaceuticals can be better than cannabis for various conditions and I still recommend these when appropriate.

I hope you feel more knowledgeable on how cannabis work on your mind and body. Drop a comment below if interested in discussing further. Don’t forget your run or yoga session today to boost your endocannabinoid system!

  • Cannabinoid MD
Image Credits:
(Image taken from cell.com)
(Image taken from alchimiaweb.com)
(Image taken from bestcbdoil.com)

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