Cannabis, the Body & the Brain

In the early part of 20th century, cannabis was branded as one of the most dangerous substance on earth. It was said to cause laziness, sexual urges and even murderous tendencies – notions perpetuated by both international governments and the media.

While the stigma around consumption still persists, today’s view of cannabis is advancing rapidly. Pot is now a beacon of hope for many suffering from chronic, debilitating illnesses whose symptoms such as nausea, pain, anxiety and fatigue can be addressed by the compounds found in the cannabis plant.

But the question remains for many: How does this plant achieve so much?

The answer is within you — literally. There are several systems built into your body that regulate hormones, sugar levels, stress responses, fat stores, and endocannabinoid levels. ‘Endo’ means within, internal. ‘Cannabinoid’ describes the molecules found naturally in your body, where they are produced locally and on-demand. This system works by producing compounds that link with internal receptors to produce a physiological response.

The two most important endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-AG (2-Arachidonoylglycerol). They are vital to the regulation of several important systems in your body including pain, stress response and memory. There are two main types of cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. Generally, CB1 couples with anandimide in the brain, while CB2 receptors bind with 2-AG. The main function of the endocannabinoid system is to regulate your overall system and provide balance (homeostasis).

So, why then, does cannabis use the endocannabinoid system? The key is in the structure of cannabinoids.The makeup of Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is almost identical to anandimide, while cannabidiol (CBD) is equally as similar to 2-AG. When we consume cannabis or apply it topically, these cannabinoids enter our body and bind to the same receptors as endocannabinoids. Cannabinoids serve as ‘communicators’ in the body— otherwise known as neurotransmitters. When they bind to a particular receptor, this sends a cascade of information resulting in physiological changes.

THC binds to CB1 receptors in the brain and results in elevated brain activity and a sense of euphoria. The location of receptors can predict the body’s physiological response. CB1 receptors are found where you brain regulates mood, memory, motion and decision making. It ramps up the number of firing neurons by suppressing the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, and also decreases your body’s fight or flight response. GABA is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for dampening your brain and nerve activity, so with less of that, more of your brain is working.

Euphoria comes from the increase of the pleasure neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine is the substance that floats around your brain when you’ve done something rewarding, joyful or exciting. Generally, increases in dopamine occur in spikes, but this is not the case for cannabis. It stimulates the dopamine neurons to increase their activity, but does not affect how long it hangs around in your brain or how it is reabsorbed (Oleson & Cheer, 2012). Also, research shows that cannabis will interact with your brain uniquely based on your genetic predispositions (Oleson & Cheer, 2012). That is why it is extremely important to consult your doctor and be clear about any personal or family history of mental health such as addiction, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder before consuming cannabis. 

CBD binds to CB2 receptors throughout the body. These have been found to be key regulators of inflammatory and immune system responses because they are found in a range of leukocytes. Leukocytes are immune cells floating around that respond to potentially threatening substances in the body. Imagine little knights on tug boats flowing along the blood stream, swords out, on the lookout for the viruses ready to attack.

CBD works to manage inflammation in the body by decreasing the amount of signals your body receives to initiate an inflammatory response (Nagarkatti et al. 2010). It also suppresses your immune system response. By suppressing the immune system, it indirectly prevents stress hormones from being released. (Nagarkatti et al. 2010). So, if you’re someone who is high strung, CBD could be a great tool to relearn how to respond to stressful situations.

Cortisol is a hormone that is important to note here. Cortisol is a stress hormone released from your adrenal glands in response to your immune system. Release it too often, and it can result in chronic inflammation and other problems. It also stresses you out and causes weight gain, among other things. Decreasing stress levels also indirectly increases levels of dopamine, because your body is spending less time creating anxiety-inducing neurotransmitters and hormones.

Cannabis is a unique plant with the ability to interact with many important systems in the body, and with the right understanding of how they interact with you, it can serve to manage a multitude of symptoms. A little bit of green can go a long way.

Story by Katarina Kostovic
Illustration by Elena Boils

The preceding is for informational purposes only. It is not meant to condone the use or consumption of cannabis. For more information, please refer to our disclaimer

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