Cannabinoids and how they interact with the human endocannabinoid system
The research on the therapeutic efficacy of medical cannabisRead more around which conditions have evidence
How Do Cannabinoids Work?
The plant cannabis sativa contains more than 400 natural compounds; at least 60 of these are classed as cannabinoids.
Cannabinoids are a type of chemical that interacts with the endocannabinoid system in the human body to produce a wide range of effects.
The Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system is a signalling network that controls various functions in the human body. The messaging molecules in this system are called endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are very similar to the cannabinoids in Cannabis sativa. The two main endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-AG.
Endocannabinoids communicate with different body tissues by binding to sites called cannabinoid receptors. There are two types of cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. The majority of CB1 receptors are in the brain and spinal cord, where they are involved in nerve signalling. CB1 receptors are also found in the reproductive system, pituitary and thyroid glands, digestive tract, lungs and kidneys as well as fat, muscle and liver cells. CB2 receptors are mainly found in the immune system.
The most common cannabinoids in cannabis sativa are Δ 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Other cannabinoids include cannabinol, cannabigerol, tetrahydrocannabivarin and cannabidivarin. Plant cannabinoids can interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors like endocannabinoids.
Effects on the Human Body
Research indicates that cannabinoid receptors in the brain can suppress pain and inflammation. In some parts of the world, doctors are already using cannabinoid medicines to treat nerve pain and spasms in people with multiple sclerosis.
Memory and Learning
Cannabinoid receptors are concentrated in the parts of the brain that regulate memory and learning. Cannabinoids could be useful for treating conditions related to fear memories, such as panic disorders, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The endocannabinoid system is involved in regulation of appetite and food intake. THC increases appetite in humans and some cannabinoid medicines are already licensed for treating weight loss and increase appetite in people with AIDS or advanced cancer.
THC acts mainly on the nervous system and is responsible for the “high” or pleasurable feelings from cannabis. In addition, another natural chemical in cannabis called limonene is thought to have an uplifting effect. Research has found that in some circumstances THC produces euphoria and relaxation, while in other circumstances it causes anxiety and paranoia. CBD is thought to reduce anxiety and paranoia from THC and has anti-anxiety properties of its own which are not yet fully understood.
Research has found that the endocannabinoid anandamide can influence sleep patterns. THC behaves like anandamide in the human body and can be sedating at certain doses, whereas CBD has the opposite effect. Some evidence suggests that a terpene compound in cannabis called myrcene may also cause sedation.
CBD has anti seizure properties and may be useful in certain types of uncontrolled epilepsy which have not responded to “conventional” anti-epileptic medications, in particular, rare, severe childhood epilepsies such as Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes.
Research suggests that THC and similar cannabinoids can block the signals that cause nausea and vomiting. Doctors are already using cannabis-based medicines to treat nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy in some parts of the world.
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- Hohmann AG, ASC Rice. Wall & Melzack's Textbook of Pain, 6th Edition. Ch.38, 538-551, 2013.