Cannabis contains approximately 60 to 80 different compounds called cannabinoids; substances whose potential medical benefits—like reducing nausea and combatting tumours—are currently being explored by the scientific community.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is one of the most commonly occurring cannabinoids, a psychoactive substance that is responsible for why users feel ‘high’ when they ingest marijuana, experiencing pleasurable feelings of relaxation and euphoria. THC can also have a number of additional effects—such as decreasing pain and increasing appetite—that make it particularly interesting to medical researchers. It has been linked to a growing incidence of psychotic symptoms and schizophrenia in users (particularly those with a genetic predisposition).
Cannabinoids work by interacting with certain receptors on cells in the body: CB1 receptors, found on cells in the nervous system, and CB2 receptors, located within the immune system. THC’s intoxicating effects—and link to mental illness—are related to its activation of CB1 receptors. The effects Cannabidiol, another common cannabinoid found within marijuana, has on the body means it interacts far less with these CB1 receptors, and when it does it produces little to no psychoactive effects. This, combined with the fact that there is also increasing evidence that it may have an effect on other signalling systems in the brain, means that scientists are now investigating CBD’s possible therapeutic potential for treating a host of issues from anxiety and psychosis to Alzheimer’s.
In 2015, Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse testified to the US Senate Drug Caucus on the research done so far on the possible medical uses of cannabidiol. Studies conducted in the last two decades have indicated that CBD may have anti-seizure effects (when conducted with animal models), though only a small handful of randomised clinical trials have been run on the effectiveness of CBD as a treatment for epilepsy. CBD has also been shown to have neuro-protective and anti-inflammatory properties when tested on cell cultures and animal models, with positive outcomes on conditions such as Alzheimer’s, stroke, Parkinson’s diseases and multiple sclerosis (in fact a medicine called Savitex, which contains both THC and CBD, is already being used in the NHS to treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis). There have also been several pre-clinical reports on the effects cannabidiol has on the body including a considerable anti-tumour effect in cell culture and animal models, though these results have not been confirmed in human subjects.
There is evidence to suggest that the effects cannabidiol has on the body are positive in regards to alleviating the symptoms of certain mental illnesses. Marijuana has been linked in several studies to an increased risk of psychosis in some individuals, effects that, research suggests, CBD may limit. Thus far there have only been small-scale clinical trials on this. The anxiety and stress-lessening effects of CBD have also been documented in animal models and small human laboratory and clinical trials—particularly when it comes to social anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Cannabinoids and cancer
One of the areas that garners the most attention when it comes to the medical uses of cannabinoids and the effects cannabidiol has on the body is cancer treatment. However, it’s important to recognise that virtually all research on whether cannabinoids can treat cancer has been done on either animals or lab-grown cancer cells, not live patients. In addition, while there has been promising research on the beneficial effects that cannabinoids could have on fighting tumours, there isn’t enough reliable evidence to definitively prove that cannabinoids could effectively treat cancer. See Cancer Research UK’s science blog for more information on this subject.
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