How does cannabis work on the mind and body?

Dr. Michael Verbora breaks down the basics of why and how cannabis works in our bodies

There is a lot of confusion and misconception regarding how cannabis works on the body and mind. I thought I would take a second to explain and clarify some of the misinformation.

What is quite fascinating is that our own bodies produce “cannabis-like” molecules that we call endogenous cannabinoids. These cannabis-like molecules enter the brain and immune system (primarily) and go to work regulating appetite, mood, inflammation, cardiovascular functioning, metabolic homeostasis, sleep, and pain perception. This system is necessary for our survival—even small nematodes have these endogenous cannabinoids in their body.

Our cannabis molecules act on a system in our body known as the endocannabinoid system. The system has receptors in the brain, immune system, and is also found throughout the body, lining our organs and skin. When endogenous cannabinoids bind to these receptor areas, one begins to experience the benefits of cannabinoid therapy. As you read this article your body is at work making these cannabis-like molecules. We also know that the “runner’s high” many people report after vigorous exercise is part of your body releasing larger amounts of endocannabinoids. Yoga and meditation can also boost endocannabinoids. It is no wonder I often prescribe exercise, meditation, and yoga to all my patients as part of healthy living. It is part of developing and promoting a healthy endocannabinoid system.

Nature has also created the cannabis plant which is far more complex in cannabinoid options than our own bodies can produce. The cannabis plant has closer to 100 cannabinoids compared to our own bodies, which make closer to 10 (known to date).

The most popular plant cannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). These two are also likely the most medicinal ingredients in cannabis strains, given their higher concentrations compared to other ingredients. I like to call cannabinoids level one ingredients in the plant. There are other ingredients known as terpenes and flavonoids, which I call level 2 and level 3 ingredients, respectively. They are also important in producing varied medicinal effects, but I will save that for a different discussion. More commonly, we appreciate the aromas and colors they produce in the cannabis flower.

When a patient chooses to boost their endocannabinoid system with medical cannabis, they are enhancing the effects of their body’s own system with plant cannabinoids. This leads to both mind and body symptoms.

In the brain, THC will bind to receptors and lead to deep relaxation, reducing of nerve pain and muscle spasms, reduced pain/inflammation, and boost our appetite. THC is also what is responsible for the “high” or euphoria people experience. THC can produce some side effects, including sedation, dizziness, dry mouth, short-term memory loss, and a racing heart. Sometimes THC combined with specific terpenes (level 2 ingredients) can cause a racing heart and energy that can make someone feel anxious, paranoid or in rare circumstances make them hallucinate. This side effect can be eliminated or minimized if a patient is educated well by a knowledgeable physician on which strains to avoid if they are at risk for this side effect (not everyone is). Side benefits often reported are happiness, creativity and mental clarity.

CBD on the other hand works more on our body and allows it to make more serotonin and boost our own endogenous cannabinoids. Interestingly, CBD can block some of the effects of THC. CBD is responsible for muscle relaxation, reducing inflammation, stimulating bone production, and can improve seizures. CBD does not have the side effect of producing a “high” or euphoria. In fact there are very few reported side effects from patients taking pure CBD (sometimes a bit of fatigue/drowsiness but even this is rarely reported). CBD is being used more commonly today as an anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, and is being researched as an anti-psychotic. It may have great utility in mental health disease. It can help patients with chronic pain as well, but in my experience it does not always work for these patients. A combination of THC and CBD seems to work best for the majority of pain conditions.

When I meet patients and prescribe cannabis, I try to selectively determine which ingredients or combination of ingredients will be best for them given their condition, medical history, and medications. I combine all of this information to produce a very personalized and custom treatment plan designed to improve their health and well-being. There is still experimentation that is often required, and no two patients require the same mix of cannabinoids.

In Canada, we have a licensed producer system that regulates cannabis production and distribution. The benefit to me as a physician is that I can control the THC and CBD amounts patients receive given the regulatory framework in place. This is important when using cannabis as a medicine. As a medical doctor I do not ignore that sometimes pharmaceuticals can be better than cannabis for various conditions, and I still recommend these when appropriate.

I hope you feel more knowledgeable on how cannabis work on your mind and body. Don’t forget your run or yoga session today to boost your endocannabinoid system!

Originally appeared on Dr. Verbora’s blog here.

Featured image via Flickr.


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1 comment

  1. maxwood Reply

    Applaud this article's encouragement. Only problem is the titling and format suggest a emphasis on what "it" does to and/or for us, rather the emphasis should be: "Ask not what it will do for you, set about determining what you can do with it."
    The Yoga of appropriate use would therefore include inhaling vapors not in a sit-down lounge but in a workshop among material and tools with which cannabinoid-activated minds and hands can create toys, tools, walksticks, furniture and whatever products and services one can newly invent.