Safety & Benefits of Cannabinoids
Purveyors of cannabinoid medicine can seem optimistic when extolling its safety and benefits, but patients should always be discriminating when choosing the type of care they receive. While explanations about the safety and efficacy of cannabinoid medicine can be confusing, there are several basic yet important reasons why treating appropriate illness and pain with cannabis can be beneficial and, in some cases, preferable to conventional pharmaceuticals.
The endocannabinoid system is a group of neuromodulator lipids and their receptors that exist in the brain and nerve cells of mammals. This system plays an important role in the physiological processes that maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is the maintenance of a healthy equilibrium of the bodies interdependent elements by responding to external stimuli and internal changes. In order to help the body carry out homeostasis, the endocannabinoid system plays an important role in regulating the impulses related to appetite, pain response, mood, immune function, muscle spasm, sleep, and memory.
The nervous system can be understood as the body’s communication system. It senses external stimuli and changes within the body through nerves. That information is passed through those nerves to the brain, where it is processed and responded to either consciously or by impulse. The endocannabinoid system helps relate this information and coordinate the body’s response.
Sometimes these neural pathways become damaged from injury, disease, or genetic predisposition and this causes a response that triggers painful symptoms such as inflammation or nausea.
What cannabinoids appear to do is bind to the receptors of the body’s endocannabinoid system, supplementing the body’s naturally occurring cannabinoids, thereby improving the physiological response.
THC and CBD: What are they and what do they do?
Different cannabinoids have different pharmacological effects. To illustrate this we will examine the two most prevalent cannabinoids: THC and CBD. Though there are over 100 cannabinoids, each with their own unique properties, THC and CBD represent the bulk of the cannabinoid content by weight and are the most well studied.
THC or tetrahydrocannabinol is a cannabinoid found in high concentrations in cannabis plants that would be considered medicinal or recreational quality. THC is the cannabinoid that produces the psychoactive effects associated with cannabis. Patients who consume cannabis products with THC should not drive or operate heavy machinery.
When taken carefully on a standardized and consistent regimen, THC can ease a variety of symptoms without significant intoxication. Starting with doses as low as 5mg, THC can begin to alleviate pain, nausea, and insomnia.
CBD or cannabidiol is a cannabinoid found in high concentrations in cannabis plants that would be considered medicinal or hemp quality. Since cannabis that is high in CBD does not produce an intoxicating effect, it’s unattractive for recreational consumers. Because of its medicinal qualities CBD remains in high demand among medicinal users.
CBD becomes effective in doses as low as 10mg and can treat a wide range neurological and inflammatory symptoms. CBD has shown remarkable effectiveness in treating epilepsy, PTSD, anxiety, and neuropathic pain.
THC or CBD can be taken alone to great effect (though natural cannabis extractions will always carry at least trace amounts of both THC and CBD). However, they show a powerful synergizing effect when used in concert. Patients tend to report more symptom relief when these cannabinoids are taken together.
In addition, CBD appears to temper the intoxicating effects of THC, so patients can enjoy THC’s therapeutic qualities without the more pronounced psychological effects.
Neuroprotectants & Antioxidants
By mediating immune response and neural communication, cannabinoids are highly potent antioxidant neuroprotectants. CBD is especially effective at clearing glutamate, a toxic chemical that accumulates following traumatic brain injury. Cannabinoids have also shown consistent effectiveness both in vivo and in vitro studies to protect nerve cells damaged by MS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
Probably the foremost reason why patients and doctors should consider cannabinoid therapy is its safety profile. The active constituents of the cannabis plant are remarkably non-toxic. While even drugs as familiar and safe as acetaminophen carry potentially life-threatening risks, there has never been a verifiable overdose death from cannabis consumption.
Minimal Side Effects
One of the most problematic aspects of traditional pharmacopoeia is the side effects. Side effects can range from mild discomfort to the life threatening. Side effects of cannabinoid therapy have consistently been shown to be minimal in trials. Those that do arise are easily managed when the regimen is overseen by a qualified health professional and they are never life threatening.
Another reason why cannabinoid therapy is a safe and effective form of treatment is because of the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids. Inflammation is both the cause and symptom of many disease states. It is also a major contributor to pain. Reducing inflammatory response is an important aspect of treating disease and injury. Unfortunately many traditional pharmaceuticals cause inflammation. There are many prescription and over-the-counter medications that treat inflammation, but most have side effects or pose toxicity risks.
Unlike many medications used to treat chronic conditions, cannabinoid medicines have been shown to remain effective for a patient at similar doses over long periods of time. Many prescription drugs, especially those used to treat neurological conditions and chronic pain, become less effective over time, so dosage must be increased or replaced with a new drug altogether.
Low Risk of Dependence
Many drugs used to treat chronic disease or pain carry some risk of physical or mental dependence. Opiate pain medication, in particular, is notoriously addictive, and, unfortunately, one of the few effective means that doctors have to treat pain. Cannabinoid medicine offers an effective alternative that largely avoids the risk of dependence.