Written by: Dagmara Mach
CBD and other cannabinoids may alleviate pain while promoting whole-body healing. This is because they interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system, which among other things is responsible for maintaining homeostasis and regulating the stimulation of nerve cells to increase or decrease pain. It also appears to play a major role in immune responses like inflammation.
The role of the endocannabinoid system supersedes that of every other system in our body. Yet despite its discovery 27 years ago, the endocannabinoid system has largely been kept under wraps by the powers that control modern healthcare. Thanks mainly to the efforts of pharmaceutical companies lobbying the government in favor of expensive patentable drugs, the endocannabinoid system has been absent from mainstream education. Can you remember ever reading about it in a textbook? I can’t.
In fact, in her Tedx talk Dr. Rachel Knox, physician and founder of the American Cannabinoid Clinics, states that the endocannabinoid system was completely left out of every single medical textbook she ever read.
In the United States, several hundred people a month search Google for phrases like “is the endocannabinoid system a real thing.” It seems they too are shocked by its secret existence.
Throughout our education, we have been taught about the circulatory system, the skeletal system, the immune system, the pulmonary system, the muscular system, and the nervous system. Yet the one system that controls them all, the endocannabinoid system, has been left out of all of our health, anatomy, and physiology classes from elementary school through medical school.
The medicinal use of cannabinoids is not a new development in human history. Cannabis is one of the most ancient plants used medicinally by humans. Findings suggested that humans and animals have used and consumed it for 12,000 years and tools designed for inhaling smoke, such as but not limited to solid gold Scythian bongs have been discovered across the world.
The first record of using cannabis as medicine dates back to 5,000 years ago when in 2,700 B.C. Chinese Emperor Shennong documented the discovery and first use of the healing properties of Cannabis. Then, in 1,213 B.C the Egyptians recorded using cannabis to treat glaucoma and inflammation. In 1,000 B.C. a concoction or drink of cannabis and milk called Bhang was written about as medicine in India. In Russia, a burial mound of a priestess known as the Ice Maiden revealed cannabis seeds dating back to 500 B.C.
Later, ancient Roman texts from 79 A.D. show Pliny the Elder wrote about using Cannabis for pain, gout, and cramps. During the 1700s, settlers brought marijuana from Europe to Jamestown, and in the 1770’s George Washington grew hemp. The history of medicinal Cannabis use by societies throughout the world including Europe, Russia, India, and North America abounds.
In the United States, Cannabis was once a top 3 most commonly prescribed medication and physicians routinely gave it to their patients well into the 20th century. In fact, from 1850 to 1937 Cannabis was used as a prime medicine for over 100 separate illnesses in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia.
However, in the late 1800s two very wealthy businessmen became friends, and their friendship blossomed to doom the health of millions of Americans for over a century. Following a massive push by the new pharmaceutical industry initially spearheaded by John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, Cannabis, an unpatentable and therefore unprofitable natural treatment became heavily taxed, prosecuted, and finally written out of the U.S. pharmacopeia in 1942.
Despite the misguided efforts of the pharmaceutical industry, there have been more than 23,000 studies published on Cannabis uses, and the Cannabis plant remains the most researched plant in human history. Medical studies examining the effects of cannabinoids on multiple sclerosis, anxiety, bone repair, epilepsy, pain, anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, sleep aid, protecting the brain against trauma, boosting the immune system, and extinguishing bad memories (PTSD) are underway throughout the world.
The endocannabinoid system is a 600 million-year-old communication network that resides in all animals except the insect. Integral to maintaining balance or homeostasis throughout the body, it mainly consists of 4 core components.
Cannabinoid receptors such as CB1, CB2, and counting make up the first core component. Endogenous or body made ligands like anandamide and 2-AG are the second component. These ligands, also known as endocannabinoids, bind to the cannabinoid receptors to initiate an action. The third and fourth parts are the enzymes. These include the synthesized enzymes that create the endocannabinoids when they are needed and the degradative enzymes that break them down once they are used.
The endocannabinoid system interacts with both internal and external stimuli and is in one way or another involved in every single part of our existence. From sleep and anxiety to embryonic development and immunosurveillance, there is not one body function that is not somehow modulated or influenced by the endocannabinoid system. According to Dr. Rachel Knox, MD it directs, corrects, and overall manages our health.
Since its discovery almost three decades ago, the endocannabinoid system, due to its involvement in the control of inflammatory and nociceptive, or pain-related responses, has emerged as a target for pain treatment. This is not to say that it has not been the target of ancient healing practices of the past or that it has not been used by natural healers such as chiropractors, herbalists, and acupuncturists for as long as these practices have been around. These natural healers knew what worked and had good theories as to why. They just lacked the biophysical model for demonstrating their methods in a way that is acceptable to the modern scientific community. That model emerged with the discovery of the endocannabinoid system.
Unlike neurotransmitters which are formed and stored in vesicles until they are needed, endocannabinoids are synthesized on demand. Formed when and where they are needed, endocannabinoids regulate the release of dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters. Helping the body to withstand all sorts of damage, they are also involved in healing, regulating appetite, and modulating sleep. Researchers believe that the endocannabinoid system is involved in essentially all human diseases.
If you have ever dealt with chronic pain you know that it can be crippling in more ways than one. Not only does pain hurt, but it interferes with our ability to think, work, sit at a computer, eat, sleep, enjoy social interactions and so much more.
Today, more than 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. Each day, 65,000 pain pills are dispensed at pharmacies across the country. 2 million Americans are addicted to these pills and we are currently experiencing the worst overdose epidemic in American history. Yet we know there is a better way.
Research reveals that cannabinoids and opioids both block the release of pain-propagating neurotransmitters in the brain and spinal cord via a similar G-protein-coupled mechanism. Researchers believe there is an intimate connection between cannabinoids and opioids in the modulation of pain perception. Further, a growing body of studies shows that cannabinoids, when co-administered with opioids, have a stronger analgesic effect than when opioids are administered alone. This effect may enable lower opioid doses to achieve the same level of pain relief when used in conjunction with cannabinoids.
The cannabinoid Cannabidiol, or CBD, has the potential to be a natural alternative or adjunct to pain medications. In spite of limited clinical research, many people, including myself, report using CBD oil and CBD cream as an effective form of pain management. In fact, according to a recent study of Cannabidiol users, 62% use it to treat a medical condition. Of the 62% who use CBD medicinally, the majority of individuals reported using it for chronic pain as well as arthritis and joint pain.
Plant-based cannabinoids such as those extracted from hemp and marijuana can simulate the actions of our body’s own endocannabinoids, leading to analgesia or pain relief. THC appears to mimic the endocannabinoid anandamide by binding to our body’s own cannabinoid receptors. CBD, on the other hand, appears to inhibit the body from breaking down anandamide.
Anandamide, also known as the bliss molecule, is what is released when we smile or hug. It is the endocannabinoid behind the runner’s high we experience during physical exercise. Anandamide is associated with regulating pain, happiness, and much more. Researchers theorize that CBD and THC may reduce the amount of pain a person feels by increasing levels of anandamide in the bloodstream.
There are two types of chronic pain: neuropathic pain and inflammatory nociceptive pain. Studies suggest that cannabinoids can help alleviate both of these. In fact, although clinical studies are still in their early days, a 2019 survey of 1,321 participants found that approximately 80% reported substituting cannabinoids for traditional pain medications. Of those 80% who substituted pharmaceuticals with cannabis, 53% of respondents reported substituting cannabis for opioids and 22% for benzodiazepines.
Despite being the most studied plant in human history, cannabis research remains limited and most existing human studies tend to examine the joint effects of THC and CBD. These are just two cannabinoids of the approximately 120 total cannabinoids identified in the cannabis plant. Like our endogenous, or body made, cannabinoids, these plant-based cannabinoids interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system which receives and translates their signals. Researchers believe that cannabinoids work together to create greater effects when they are consumed as full-spectrum botanicals than they do when they are consumed in isolation. This effect is known as the entourage effect.
Much of the information we have about CBD and pain relief in humans is anecdotal like this story from Amelia, who shares how Ned’s Natural Cycle Kit put an end to a decade of excruciating menstrual pain, changing her life for the better. Experts believe that menstrual pain is related to hormonal fluctuations. It is possible that full-spectrum CBD oils may help balance hormonal production as well as downregulate pain and cramping. Interestingly, according to the Natural Encyclopedia of ancient scholar Pliny the Elder, cramping was one of the symptoms treated with hemp during Roman times.
The glutaminergic system, a major excitatory neuronal pathway, is largely responsible for creating and sustaining neuropathic pain. CBD appears to inhibit the release of inflammatory agents such as glutamate, which makes it neuroprotective and very good at diminishing the tingling, prickling and burning sensations that characterize neuropathic pain.
One study of patients experiencing opioid resistant cancer pain showed that THC and CBD administration resulted in statistically significant improvements over placebo whereas the THC only group was similar to placebo.
Although it is related to neuropathic pain, inflammatory pain is not limited to neurons. Examples of inflammatory pain include headaches, cramps, muscle aches and pains, all types of arthritis, and some autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
Some researchers theorize that endocannabinoid deficiency underlies the pathophysiology of migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and other functional conditions alleviated by cannabinoids. One study from the University of Colorado which examined the effect of medical cannabis on migraine headaches showed that the frequency of migraine headaches decreased with cannabis use.
Traditional anti-inflammatory drugs work by inhibiting COX-1 and COX-2 receptors, a process that may lead to an increased risk of developing gastrointestinal ulcers or heart attacks. Unlike these drugs, cannabidiol or CBD has an anti-inflammatory mechanism that is unique to the cannabis plant and studies have shown that when compared to NSAIDs like Ibuprofen, cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are up to twenty times more potent anti-inflammatory agents.
A 2015 study involving a rat model of arthritis showed that transdermal CBD gel significantly reduced pro-inflammatory biomarkers and joint swelling, suggesting the therapeutic potential of CBD oil in relieving arthritis-related pain and inflammation. Another mouse study by Malfait et al showed that orally administered CBD decreased inflammation and effectively blocked the progression of arthritis.
If you are suffering from pain, supplementing your lifestyle with plant-based cannabinoids in the form of full-spectrum CBD oil or topically applied salve may help to manage or even alleviate your symptoms. When paired with whole foods, adaptogenic herbs, and endocannabinoid inducing practices such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation, and exercise, cannabidiol can help soothe and tone your endocannabinoid system for optimal performance. Together these practices can enable you to control inflammation, relieve pain, improve sleep, and achieve whole-body balance.