Is Cannabis Your Best Medicine?

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I am asked daily if marijuana is a positive thing.  This isn't an easy answer because the action of cannabis is unique to the individual.  Let me start by helping you to understand the physiological placement of cannabis as a chemical in the body.  In this way you will see how much of a positive or negative effect it may have for your specific needs. 

Cannabis is targeting a responsive system in the nervous system known as the Endocannabinoid System which helps the body to regulate homeostasis and fine-tune responses in this system.  It is a delicate balance that each individual has developed over the course of their life experience.  This is the system that prepares you for stress and dictates how your body will respond to that stress.  This system includes tissues in the nervous system that produce two main hormones which interact with two receptor types that are present in both the brain and immune system.  It does this along the same pathways as cortisol through the endocrine system traveling from the hypothalamus (brain) to the pituitary gland (master gland of the body) and the adrenal glands (cortisol synthesis).  These hormones are produced to act on local receptors close by and not to circulate through the general body blood.   This limits the range of their effects to the control systems of the body in the nervous and endocrine systems with allied effects in the immune system.  As is the case with all hormones the body makes, the endocannabinoids are modulated by a biochemical synthesized from essential fatty acids.  This means that when their effect is no longer needed, the remaining hormone is degraded and removed from the body.

So the key facts about this natural Endocannabinoid System is:

* It is activated during acute stress.
* The hormones are active on local receptors, CB1 found only in the brain and CB2 found in the brain and immune system.
* When the brain determines that the stress is under control, the remaining hormone is reduced and degraded by Anandamide ( a natural body chemical made from essential fatty acids) and then the Endocannabinoid system is down-regulated. 
* In its action it has a potentially profound effect on cortisol regulation.
* During this process, the Endocannabinoid system provides feedback to the brain (hypothalamus) which helps to determine when the stress response should be switched off.

Now, cannabis whether applied topically, smoked or eaten is very different from your natural endocannabinoid hormones even though it is targeting the same Endocannabinoid system.  First of all because of these methods of application, it is entering the bloodstream before even reaching the receptors for the Endocannabinoid system.  One of the side effects of this over time is the development of receptors for endocannabinoid hormones outside of the normal body tissue locations.  This not only means that peripheral body tissues are being targeted but the number of receptors is increasing.  Cannabis is also not degraded and reduced by the normal body chemical Anandamide as our natural endocannabinoids are.  But it does activate the same receptors. 

The result of cannabis use is therefore the following:

* Over time the increasing number of receptors artificially provide feedback to the brain shutting down the normal stress response.  This also means that it requires larger doses to achieve the same effects because the body works to modulate the stress system.  By encouraging the stress system to switch off, the protective features that are triggered by the stress response are not activated.  This weakens the immune system response, dampens normal adrenal hormone release and maintains lower heart rate and blood pressure when normally we do need higher rates at various times. 

* Circulating cannabis and residual amounts can create temporary effects in peripheral tissues including numbness, muscle weakness, lowered visual acuity, lower energy and decreased reflexive action.  This is because these tissues are not naturally populated with endocannabinoid receptors. 

* Since cannabis works through the same stress response pathways as cortisol and circulates through the blood as cortisol does, it can cause artificial changes in cortisol responses.  Cortisol has a normal daily cycle of higher and lower amounts through the day which helps to regulate our wake/sleep patterns and our daily energy.  Cannabis can interfere with this since it is not used in a way that mimics the normal cortisol cycle.  This can cause dysregulation in our normal corticol release and availability.

* The body adapts to overuse of the cortisol pathways by attempting to down-regulate cortisol release from the adrenal glands.  This reduces the natural effects that cortisol has in our body. 

So the ways in which cannabis acts in the body depends on the individual's cortisol history.  For people with high saturation of cortisol, short-term cannabis use can be very beneficial.  But once balance has been achieved, the pendulum swings the other way and the body will experience effects of this down-regulating effect.  So even though people may begin using cannabis for pain and to reduce stress, there may be unanticipated effects when it is taken too long:

  1. Poor blood sugar control
  2. Lowered metabolism in body tissues
  3. Uncontrolled inflammation
  4. Loss of memory consolidation
  5. Poor salt and water balance
  6. Poor blood pressure control
  7. Loss of fetal support during pregnancy

This means that using cannabis may have some negative side effects that aren't worth the trouble.  It also means that if you are already experiencing these symptoms in the body, then cannabis is not a positive therapeutic choice.  In my more than 30 years of experience I have used herbs to bring about change in individuals even more effective than cannabis with none of the potential negative side effects.  It is essential to realize that cannabis use is intruding into a very delicately balanced body response system.  It's important to realize that true health requires work including emotional work, changes in diet, lifestyle, stress response moderation and resolution of imbalances that exist in the body. 

Cannabis isn't about improving health, it's about management ... management of pain, management of stress, management of anxiety.  So if you are looking for short-term management, then it can be a great thing.  But don't be fooled into thinking that it provides lasting and healthy change, because those lie on a very different path.