In this article, we’ll explore how marijuana works in humans and marijuana side effects, particularly in the brain. I hope to clear up some of the propaganda that still exists about its value as both a natural recreational and medicinal substance.
A 2019 study of marijuana’s effects on brain development, the largest of its kind, found no differences between long-term users and nonusers. Prior reports of changes in brain composition were likely due to preexisting issues such as trauma, which we know does remodel the structure of the brain. The journal Nature Medicine published complementary findings in June of 2017 that THC improved cognition of aging populations. And it’s not just THC responsible for the results, we’ve recently discovered that many parts of the plant contain substances beneficial to humans.
THE CONSTITUENTS OF CANNABIS: SEED, VEGETABLE, & FLOWER
The seeds are full of protein, magnesium, and healthy omega-3 fat, nutritionally superior to almonds, chia, and sunflower seeds. As a vegetable, the leaves are filled with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The prized flowers are the icing on the cake, producing alkaloids, flavonoids, terpenes, essential amino acids, resins, and cannabinoids–far more than just THC.2
Researchers have identified over 180 cannabinoids in the essential oil of marijuana, all of which have potential as quality-of-life enhancing chemicals. These curious molecules exist elsewhere in nature, including in humans. Our body makes five cannabinoids for the human endocannabinoid system. Let’s briefly look at how this system works.
UNDERSTANDING CANNABINOIDS IN THE BRAIN: Cannabinoids function like a “circuit breaker” in the brain. The body’s endocannabinoid system responds well to the cannabinoids found in cannabis.
Cells communicate by sending chemical messages, known as neurotransmitters, to each other across microscopic gaps called synapses. After crossing a synapse, a neurotransmitter attaches to a receptor of the receiving cell, relaying messages that regulate everything we feel, think, and do.
Cannabinoids are sent from the receiving cell back to the one that transmitted the original message. By binding to the receptors of the original receptor, cannabinoids control how long it takes until the release of more neurotransmitters. When it’s ok to transfer more, the cannabinoid gets a signal to discharge from the receptor.
Without this feedback loop, we humans could not control our emotions. There would be no end to our fear, joy, excitement, or depression. Instead, the brain developed a gauge for feeling such that a small bruise will not cause the same amount of pain as a broken leg. Many sufferers of mood disorders find relief using cannabis because it acts as a circuit breaker for the brain.
Cells in the brain are called neurons, and they not only control our memory and thoughts, but they also have direct control over how the rest of the body behaves. For example, when our body needs food, a hormone known as ghrelin stimulates neurons in the brain to tell us we are hungry. If neurons keep sending the signal across synapses, we will stay hungry long after we have eaten. Another example is physical injuries. When someone sprains their ankle, neurons send inflammation to heal the area. Once the ankle heals, the body reducing the swelling and takes away the feeling of pain.
Cannabinoids control Appetite
Despite THC occasionally inducing the munchies, researchers from the National Epidemiologic Survey of Alcohol and Related Conditions concluded that marijuana actually has a weight controlling effect on users, causing them to have two pounds of body fat less than non-users after analyzing Body Mass Index data of 33,000 participants.7
THC HAS AN EFFECT ON POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (PTSD), ANXIETY, & DEPRESSION
THC binds directly to CB1 receptors in the brain, mimicking one of the body’s own cannabinoids, anandamide, responsible for modulating the neurotransmitter dopamine. In healthy brains, THC increases dopamine release, stimulating the “feel good” parts of our brain. Users with malfunctioning endocannabinoid systems may not feel the same uplifting experience using marijuana because dopamine is also involved in anxiety when coupled with higher levels of epinephrine, another neurotransmitter.
Cannabinoids have a role in our brain’s ability to forget. While marijuana is incorrectly associated with memory loss, endocannabinoid system dysfunction is closely tied to PTSD. Part of the issue for those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder is their constant fixation on past experiences. They stay very real, instead of fading as time goes on. Day to day life will carry the emotional weight of memories, while past traumas remain at the forefront of their thoughts. For many, marijuana’s cannabinoids can temporarily rewire the memory system to function normally.
THC, as well as other cannabinoids, can also magnify everyday experiences by reducing the break time of neurons releasing neurotransmitters. This is why art is often more profoundly experienced while under its influence and musicians claim that it slows down complicated songs as they play. Research published in 2019 found marijuana even motivates users to exercise.8
Cannabidiol (CBD) regulates endocannabinoid receptors instead of binding to them. They monitor cells to prevent abnormalities. If the brain is overactive, CBD can calm it, and if underactive, it can ramp up neuronal movement. In the mind itself, CBD assists the body in regulating everything from blood flow to mood-related neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. CBD oil has been found to improve anxiety, pain, sleeplessness– even seizures related to malfunctioning brain circuitry. Without a doubt, CBD oil effects on the body are beneficial to many.
MARIJUANA CONTAINS UNIQUE ANTI-INFLAMMATORY FLAVONOIDS
Flavonoids are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, bark, roots, stems, and flowers. They are an important component of nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics thanks to their protection against oxidation, inflammation, mutation, and carcinogens. Marijuana contains unique flavonoids known as Cannaflavins. Studies show that Cannaflavin A has anti-inflammatory properties stronger than those found in Aspirin.
Cannaflavin B and C are also being studied for their potential medical benefits. Other flavonoids found in cannabis include Orientin, Quercetin, Silymarin, and Kaempferol–all with peer-reviewed research demonstrating anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antioxidant, and anti-cancer abilities.3
TERPENES IN CANNABIS HAVE INSOMNIA, ANXIETY, AND AGE-FIGHTING PROPERTIES
Produced by the same glands that yield cannabinoids, aromatic compounds called terpenes provide not only the scent of cannabis but also play a role in fending off pathogens and predators during the herb’s life. They are found in the oils of all plants, not just cannabis, and have long been used in the industrial sector as fragrances, flavors, spices, and cosmetics.
Myrcene, found in lemongrass, chamomile, cannabis, and mangos, exhibits anti-aging properties on the skin. Beta-caryophyllene in black pepper, oregano, leafy green vegetables, and other edible herbs treats ulcers and acts as an anti-inflammatory when binding to cannabinoid receptors (CB2).4
In 2011, neurologist Dr. Ethan Russo asserted that the cannabinoid-terpenoid combination could enhance the treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections compared to either alone.5 This phenomenon has been coined the entourage effect.
As it turns out, the entourage effect creates the “high” marijuana is famous for–Indica being sedating, Sativa being uplifting. Terpenes create these effects. Pine-scented terpene Pinene causes certain strains to boost energy and focus, while myrcene and linalool cause sedation. Terpenes in cannabis offer the potential to boost memory and fight insomnia, PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
As you can see, marijuana has a lot to offer humankind. I think it’s safe to say that those who enjoy the experience can consider cannabis a vitality enhancer, and it’s a potential therapy for adults battling a wide variety of ailments. Marijuana isn’t the answer for everyone–no two people have the same history, thoughts, or physical condition–but it’s benefits are encouraging for society. Also remember, marijuana side effects do vary between individuals.