Meet Your Endocannabinoid System

How You Could Benefit from Cannabis Use

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Just as you have a digestive system, an endocrine system, and more, you also have an ancient endocannabinoid system. Its role is to bring balance to your tissues, including your heart, digestive, endocrine, immune, nervous, and reproductive systems. And, with cannabinoid receptors throughout our bodies, it makes sense that we are built to make use of the cannabis plant if needed.

As you know, I don’t like using drugs when there are other options for healing.  My primary reason for this is, in western medicine, which I practiced for decades, many drugs are used to cover up symptoms, not to heal the problem at its source. In addition, even “safe” drugs can cause unwanted effects in your body. 

So, of course, I have seriously questioned the use and reported benefits of cannabis, or medical marijuana — especially because of the psychoactive properties of tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC. THC is the cannabinoid, or compound, in Cannabis, that makes you feel high.

Regardless of whether or not you support cannabis use, there’s no ignoring the fact that it has made its way onto the medical scene so it’s good to be informed. As it turns out, Cannabis can be extremely beneficial for some people, and there are ways to use cannabis therapeutically without the side effect of being stoned!

How Does Cannabis Work?

In the early 1990s, scientists discovered that humans (and other mammals) have an endocannabinoid (internal, biological) system. The human endocannabinoid system releases cannabinoids that interact with receptors found in virtually all of the tissues in our bodies. 

With this endocannabinoid system in place, it makes sense that biologically we are designed to make use of the cannabis plant.  In fact, this ancient biological system responds to more than 60 cannabinoids in different ways. Some cannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptor cells.  THC makes you high by binding to the CB1 Receptor. However, other cannabinoids work indirectly. For example, one way Cannabidiol (CBD) works is by suppressing the enzyme Fatty Acid Amide Hydroxylase (FAAH).  FAAH is an enzyme that breaks down Anandamide, an important endocannabinoid associated with eating and sleeping patterns, pain relief, ovulation, and even inhibiting breast cancer cell proliferation.

Today cannabis is being used to help many people who don’t have safe treatment options for serious conditions, including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, psychosis, seizures, nausea caused by chemotherapy, and spasticity caused by multiple sclerosis.  In states where cannabis is legal, the number of Medicare prescriptions used to treat these conditions has declined. This includes the use of opiates. In fact, cannabis is being used successfully to help opiate addicts recover.

There are many more conditions that cannabis has been shown to help including reducing the frequency and severity of migraines by one half, and also reducing pain associated with Crohn’s disease. Cannabis is also being used as an appetite stimulant, and to treat certain brain disorders, such as schizophrenia and Tourette’s syndrome.  There are many additional therapeutic uses and studies.

In 2013, CNN reported on the story of Charlotte Figi.  Charlotte was 3-years-old at the time and suffering from Dravet’s Syndrome, a rare form of intractable epilepsy, which caused her to have up to 300 seizures every week from the time she was just a month old. There were no conventional therapies that could stop the child’s seizures. Charlotte’s parents heard about a California boy with Dravet’s who responded well to treatment with CBD-rich cannabis oil. (CBD is the non-psychoactive cannabinoid.) They began treating Charlotte with CBD oil.  This resulted in Charlotte’s seizures being reduced to only two to three seizures per month.

How To Avoid Getting High from Therapeutic Cannabis

If you want to experiement with cannabis therapy, but you don’t want get high, there is hope. CBD and THC are the two cannabinoids that seem to have the most therapeutic effect, and there is research that suggests they work best together. While most cannabis experts believe a whole-plant approach is necessary because of the synergy between more than 85 cannabinoids contained in the cannabis plant, research and anecdotal evidence shows that single cannabinoids, especially CBD, may be effective in treating certain conditions.

In addition, even if THC is necessary in order to maximize the therapeutic potential of CBD for some people, there are ways to take a whole-plant approach and not feel the psychoactive effects of THC.

It’s all about using the correct ratio of THC to CBD.

Jahan Marcu, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer with Americans for Safe Access who is known for his contributions to the study of the structure and function of the CB1 receptor, has said that a 1:1 ratio between TCH and CBD gives the benefit of whole-plant cannabis without the high.

Note that different cannabis strains exhibit different THC-CBD ratios. You can learn more about these different strains and their uses in treating different conditions and symptoms at the United Patients Group and Project CBD.

Another important thing to remember if you don’t want to get high is that cannabis can have a build-up effect. So, if you are using cannabis that contains any amount of THC, it can accumulate in your body and have the unwanted effect of making you high, or even triggering anxiety long after the original dose. The good news is, the effects are short-lived: when you reduce your dose or frequency of use, the psychoactive effect will diminish. In addition, unlike opiates, cannabis use is somewhat self-regulating in that people typically don’t feel the need to use more and more to get the same relief.  And, there is no fatally toxic level for cannabis as there is with opiates.

6 Ways To Use Cannabis Therapeutically

If you plan to use cannabis to treat a serious medical condition, you will need to work closely with your health care provider to determine what’s best for you, particularly when it comes to dosing.  That said, here are some of the most popular ways to use medical cannabis:

Smoke a pipe or joint.  When you smoke cannabis the compounds are absorbed by your lungs, into your bloodstream, and across your blood-brain barrier.  You get the most immediate effect from smoking, so this method is best for treating symptoms that need to be resolved quickly, such as nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy. The downside to smoking cannabis is that the effects can wear off quickly, so you may end up needing to smoke quite often. And, don’t forget, smoking is harmful to lung tissue.   

Use a vape pen. Vape pens offer a healthier alternative to smoking because they heat cannabis without burning it.  You inhale the vapor of the cannabis oil (or flower) without inhaling any smoke. The effects from cannabis vapor are as immediate as smoking.

Try a topical.  Cannabinoid-infused oils, creams, gels, sprays and patches are becoming more readily available.  They are typically used for relieving muscle soreness and inflammation, and for healing minor skin irritation. Some beauty creams are even including cannabinoids as anti-aging ingredients. Topical cannabis is non-psychoactive even if it contains THC because the cannabinoids bind to the CB2 receptors in squamous cells.  Most topical products are combined with other pain relief and anti-inflammatory ingredients such as essential oils. So read the labels if you choose this option.

Ingest it.  Some chronic pain patients choose to ingest foods and beverages containing cannabis — called edibles — as a discreet alternative to smoking or vaping.

However, you need to be cautious when ingesting edibles, especially if they contain THC. When you eat foods containing THC, your liver converts it to 11-hydroxy-THC, a very active metabolite that crosses the blood-brain barrier and can result in an intense, long-lasting high. Depending on your metabolism, it can take up to 2 hours to feel the effect of edible cannabis, so there is the danger of eating too much in an effort to get relief, and then paying for it later with an intense high.

So, if you choose edibles, be sure you understand the potency and dosing information on the labels.  A single dose, or serving, typically contains around 10 milligrams of THC and this serving size will usually be marked on the labeling.  Bear in mind: like a single serving of alcohol, this dose can affect everyone differently. To avoid the potential high, you can buy CBD-infused edibles without the THC. Or, you can purchase CBD oil and infuse your own recipes with it.

Take a supplement. Therapeutic cannabinoid supplements typically contain CBD, but no THC.  Like most supplements, they are created to address certain wellness concerns.  CBD supplements come in different forms, including sublingual sprays, capsules, lozenges, and powders that you can mix with water. Be sure to read all of the ingredients, and follow dosing instructions on the label.

Drink Tea.  Most prepared herbal teas with cannabis are not psychoactive.  They are typically prepared using the raw forms of CBD and THC known as CBDA and THCA respectively.  CBDA and THCA do not bind to the cannabinoid receptors in your body, and they cannot be converted to CBD and THC through steeping. Though there is little research, CBDA and THCA may have therapeutic properties and, in tea form, could help relieve stress and ease nausea. You can also make your own cannabis tea using the whole plant. To make your own tea, you need to include some type of fat (such as butter, milk or oil) in order to separate the cannabinoid compounds from the leaves.  While cannabis tea containing THC is usually milder than other edibles, you need to be careful with dosing so as not to experience unpleasant effects.

6 Safety Tips for Using Cannabis Responsibly

Whether or not you choose to use cannabis is a personal (and legal) decision.  If you and your health care provider think cannabis is right for you, here are some guidelines you may want to follow:

Check the laws in your state.  Cannabis use is governed by state law.  Even CBD-rich products which do not contain THC can fall under these laws. The National Conference of State Legislators is a good place to start for up-to-date information on state medical marijuana laws.

Get a card.  Even in states where cannabis is legal, there are ever-changing laws around its therapeutic use. So it’s best to get a prescription and fill out all of the necessary paper work. Once you have done this, you can purchase a marijuana card that, along with a valid identification card and your prescription, allows you to purchase cannabis products from dispensaries.

Buy from a reputable source. Some state laws require that you buy cannabis from an approved source. Weedmaps is a community of patients who are connected with dispensaries. The website and mobile app provide resources to members. also has a search feature that allows you to find reputable dispensaries in your area.

Understand labels.  Just like reading a nutrition label, you want to be sure you understand cannabis labels so you know what you are buying. Each state has its own labeling laws, but generally labels should tell you the strain and class of cannabis, the date it was tested and the testing lab name, and information regarding state compliance. You should also be able to see the total THC and CBD in percentages (or in milligrams for edibles), as well as the amount of THCA and CBDA.  You may also want to consider buying only brands that display pesticide and mold exposure information on the the label. Finally, avoid products with toxic chemical byproducts such as propane or hydrocarbons.

Be wary of hemp.  Hemp is different from cannabis. While it contains low levels of cannabinoids, hemp is a known bioaccumulator, and can contain high levels of toxins from soil.  In addition, CBD oil from hemp does not have the beneficial compounds, known as terpenes, found in cannabis oil. Finally, CBD from hemp often contains hexane, a solvent frequently used to extract CBD oil from hemp.  Hexane is a neurotoxin that can cause numbness, muscular weakness, blurred vision, headache and fatigue. (Note: Hexane is also used to extract cooking oils such as canola and soy oils!)

Start slowly. As with any medication, it’s always best to begin at the lowest effective dose. Spread your use throughout the day (i.e. don’t eat an entire edible at once) until you know how your body will react. Take notes of how you feel and any unwanted side effects after using cannabis products. Be sure to consult your healthcare provider as needed.

Remember, not every treatment is right for everyone. But, it is good to be informed about different therapies and how they work. You should always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, dietary supplement, exercise, or other health program.

Do you or someone you know use cannabis for therapeutic reasons?  I would love to hear your stories.

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.


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  1. Florence
    1 day ago

    I used Medical Marijuana in the form of a tincture under the tongue to treat a sarcoma on my thigh. It was the only pain medication I used for the surgery and it worked very well. I had no pain. I have continued to take it in place of radiation therapy because radiation causes cancer. Medical Marijuana, as shown by Rick Simpson on the internet cures cancer. I will continue taking the Medical MJ until I reach the equivalent of 60 grams of Rick Simpson oil about 20 grams per month. This amount is one bottle of the tincture per day (in NY State). I also treat myself holistically with juices, organic food, black seed oil and other supplements that boost the immune system and block cancer stem cells and make potassium broth for alkalinity. My surgery was 10 weeks ago and I am recovering well with physical therapy for my leg, walking without a limp and getting stronger everyday.

  2. Victoria
    1 day ago

    I am 60 years old and have suffered with migraines since puberty. The frequency increased over the years until they reached a chronic state. About eight years ago, when my children turned 18, I finally approached my neurologist and requested a recommendation for medical marijuana. I also purchased a medical marijuana card from the county where I live. I wanted to be “legal” when imbibing or traveling with marijuana. I am not implying that medical marijuana has cured my migraines. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. But, along with Botox treatments in my neck and shoulders every 12 weeks, the frequency and severity have definitely lessened. And so has my use of prescription drugs to abort so many migraines. Not to mention the decrease in use of pain meds.

    I use many forms of the medicine, including smoke, coconut oil, tincture, and edibles. I haven’t tried to vape yet, but after reading this informative article, I think I’ll give it a try. I have also used CBD though it is more expensive. The coconut oil is fabulous and can be used in cooking or on your skin, which is how I use it most of the time. It helps to lessen my muscle tension and has been great at relieving pain in other situations as well (post-foot surgery, arthritis in hands and hip, etc.).

    Be aware that the edibles can be tricky to dose. I don’t purchase small items that have a large dose because it’s too difficult to get a predictable dose. Bhang chocolate bars are perfect for me because I can break off a piece and know the dose.

  3. Natalie W
    1 day ago

    Thanks for being a respectable & trusted source who is open & honest & has done her research & is not in the back pocket of pharmaceutical companies who just want to prescribe what makes them $

  4. Amy
    1 day ago

    I live in Colorado and my 12 year old golden retriever started having seizures and trouble walking “hips pain” 12/16. His doggie neurologist put him on Keppra and with his vets okay I started him on CBD. I’ve been able to lower his Keppra to 1/2 the original dosage and he has had ZERO seizures since 1/17. He jumps on around like a puppy again and so very healthy and seems to be pain free. He can even jump up into my SUV by himself. He hasn’t done that for years. I also added coconut oil and glucosamine/condroitin supplement to his food. I believe it’s the CBD twice a day added to his food. I honestly didn’t think he was going to make it past 2016 and now he’s happy, healthy and pain free. I know this is a “dog” story but I wouldn’t hesitate to use it myself now from what I’ve seen with him.

  5. Mimi Routh
    1 day ago

    The hemp oil is being pushed as a great alternative to marijuana, harmless and no card needed! The word among veterans is “Don’t tell your VA doctor about this! The Feds are linked up with big pharma!” Abuses all over eBay. I brought down one vendor selling hemp oil with CBD, but his picture showed a jar of almond butter! For $31! I have met a cute young Marine vet who was made to carry ridiculous packs on long marches just to make sure he was tough — not in a war situation! Now he has “the spine of an 80-year-old man”! A huge fear among younger people is that veteran or employer drug tests will show these CBD treatments. I am older than you, Christiane, suffering crashing headaches for over a year. Arachnoiditis. Various chiropractors fooling around. I have the hemp oil on order, but they messed up the $8 shipping, so I have to wait a bit longer. I know that an “itis” condition is inflammation, is anger. I’ve had dental problems also, so look forward to a great old age free of this pain and anger. The situation calls for so much study and finding one’s own path.

  6. Breeze Woodlock
    1 day ago

    Bless you, Bless you
    I have searched the internet…have not found the clarity I found in this article.
    My grandson…my heart… is 23, has lived with me from the beginning. He had 13 dental fillings, silver, when he was 15. He started having seizures soon after. He had one gran mal every year until age 18 they increased he had a second concussion at age 19. Seizure activity increased. We found an epilepoligist and started Keppra. He has been on it since. O have not permitted cross medication . He has aura for 4 days every month. He also has scolosis. As you can imagine his life is crap. I am interested in I appreciate your info.

  7. Jill
    1 day ago

    I started using cannabis two years ago for the treatment of panic attacks and anxiety, along with clean eating and exercise and it has made a huge difference. I was taking Paxil for a number of years which had brutal side effects. I don’t take the paxil anymore and use the cannabis oil in the evening or I have a snack that is infused with the cannabis and it’s been a game changer for me! I take small doses of cbd throughout the day and in the evening, I have the thc/cbd blend and it works amazing. It will be a great day when the nasty stigma about cannabis has finally lifted and people can hear the truth about this amazing plant.

  8. Laura Johnsen
    1 day ago

    Hi! I am so happy that more doctors are starting to recognize the multiple medical benefits of this plant!! I have been using it for years for chronic pain, and was able to go from 14 opioids a day to only 4 a day!! I was also diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago and I don’t think I could have made it through the chemotherapy without it! It has also worked wonderfully for my anxiety. It makes sense that if our bodies have the receptors, it is for a reason. I truly believe that God gave us this plant to help us all. Good informative article! Thank you for explaining it so that people can understand it better.

  9. Deb
    1 day ago

    What an interesting article. I don’t use cannabis in any form but it is something I may research further. I don’t use medications so I am always looking for natural alternatives to manage pain joint pain and inflammation. I have used a whole food based supplement called Juice Plus+, along with eating more raw foods containing anti-inflammatories, that has helped me put RA into remission, but I still have the downstream pain and inflammation due to the damage that was done when it was active. So after reading this article, I am considering adding cannabis on the days that symptoms occur. Thank you for the good information.

  10. Melanie
    1 day ago

    Wow!! thank you so much for this super informative post. I had no idea as to why THC and CBD were different and how and whys they are so theraputic.

    Much appreciated!

  11. kate Richards
    1 day ago

    Thank you for sharing this valuable information. I do wish that you would have included more information, or at least more specific information on the access to CBD oil sourced from Hemp. While I appreciate your warnings about chemically processed hemp and hemp grown in contaminated soil, there is access to CBD from ‘clean’ hemp (verified by independent 3rd parties). I work as a wellness consultant and have had a large number of customers gain enormous pain relief with the use of Hemp Derived CBD. As with any herbal (or other nutrient supplement) , the customer must be very careful about the quality, sourcing and content….there are surely ‘scams’ out there when it comes to natural nutrition and wellness…but I do think that people could benefit from having some additional information regarding CBD derived from Hemp. Thank you.

  12. Lina
    1 day ago

    I have suffered migraines for almost 15 years. This year has been especially difficult for me. Migraines are not just headaches, and besides the unbearable pain, depression is scary. I have just started to use medical marijuana. I’ve never smoked, so the easiest for me is the tea. I make my own using coconut oil. Because my migraines are joined with my monthly cycle, I dread that time of the month, but I am prepared to make my tea again. It’s definitely relaxing. I only use it when I’m not well. It is not addicting.

  13. Tammy
    1 day ago

    Love the article! The article references getting a prescription, but since the plant is still federally illegal, doctors do not “prescribe” but “recommend” cannabis. Thank you for always being on the cutting edge, Dr. Northrup!

  14. Debbie Sloan
    1 day ago

    Holy Wow! I have been a “follower” or yours for close 25 years. Probably after watching a PBS special. Have all you books, seriously. And was a Usana distributor, Dr Deb Kern is in my upline. I was on one of your calls years ago and you asked me to mute (my rookie mistake). And I enrolled in B School last year knowing how much it had helped Kate.
    I recently joined Kannaway. The direct sales protion of Medical Marijuana Inc. a publicly traded company. They extract using Co2 and grow their own hemp in Europe and import CBD oils into the US. A couple of facts to address some of your concerns in your blog. is my website if your are curious about the company.
    So you can imagine my enthusiasm reading your email. this morning. I will be sharing your blog with my downline and potential prospects and clients. I am a Massage Therapist and Esthetician.
    Thank your for all your knowledge, inspiration and loveliness all these years.

  15. Susan Farrington
    1 day ago

    Thanks you for being so straightforward about a controversial subject. I do believe marijuana has it’s place as a valuable medicinal product; if you can go natural it is always best (same with food!) I have a brother with rheumatoid arthritis who has tried CBD oil, briefly. He feels that he got some relief but really needs to sign up and get on a program. Intriguing where you say the effects are cumulative, that could help. Traditional pharmaceuticals help take away some of his pain but really leave him feeling awful and the cumulative side effects are potentially severe. I am going to send him this blog to add to his information. Thank you so much!

  16. Kimberly
    2 days ago

    The human endocannabinoid system releases cannabinoids that interact with receptors found in virtually all of the tissues in our bodies.

    You say this and it sounds like the body releases these cannabinoids by itself without external ingestion. So why do we need to take them from external sources? If so, then can we help the body produce more without having to take cannabinoids? I will be looking up the system you are talking about, but thought you could clarify as well. Thanks!

  17. Susan Farrell
    2 days ago

    I have Vertigo Migraines and traditional preventive medicines have harsh side effects. Would appreciate your feedback on how to treat migraines with cannibus.
    Thank you, Susan

  18. Debra
    2 days ago

    I have fibromyalgia and arthritis, and have found cannabis to be very helpful in managing my pain. I vape a low thc/high cbd oil, so I do get a mildly stoned feeling. But that seems to be more helpful with the pain vs. the thc free oil. I am just cautious to not drive when I vape.

  19. Diane
    2 days ago

    I appreciate you covering this topic. I have chronic pain conditions and have been curious about this. Thank you for your insight.

  20. J
    2 days ago

    I just wanted to share my story about my decision to use cannabis to improve my health.
    I’ve had high anxiety most of my life and as an adolescent I smoked street weed to help me cope. I quite smoking around he age of 20 due to the high the levels of THC and questionable street weed that was often cut with other drugs.
    I started a business 6 years ago and my anxiety worsend and even though I practice yoga and meditation over the last 10 years, my anxiety has caused other related health issues with how I tried to cope, such as gaining weight and over eating and more.
    Back in Dec. 2016 my little sister told me about high CBD cannabis, which I didn’t know anything about. I did a lot of research and decided it was worth a try to see how this plant could help me. I chose to go with high CBD oil and dried flowers to see how they would fit into my lifestyle and what type of effects I would get.
    After using this medicine for a month, I noticed a significant decline in my stress levels. I am less reactive, slower thought process, which I need because I have a very fast and active mind and makes my a little “crazy” so to speak. Also it helped me make better decisions and not feeling over whelmed with fear and other emotions.
    I have now been using for about 3 months and now I have been able to loose some body fat, because I am it over eating and of course with low cortisol levels my body does feel the need to store fat anymore. I do believe that cannabis has significantly helped me move past the place of which I was stuck, but I also had to do the work of delighting at work and doing what is best for my heath. I just know that in a way, right now, cannabis is my ally and has support me along the way.

  21. Pat
    2 days ago

    I have always heard that cannabis is good for reducing eye pressure. Recently I have read it isn’t a good thing for the optic nerve. I am a glaucoma patient and have been considering trying canabus but now I’m just not sure. Would appreciate your feedback.
    Thank you! Pat

  22. Louise Quo Vadis
    2 days ago

    Thank you for this great article. If you would have asked me 10 years ago to use cannabis for chronic pain management I would have told you that you were nuts. I am not saying that anymore because after much debate on how to get help with my chronic pain I did my research and opened my mind to trying it. I educated myself and then took the plunge. I tried it. The results were amazing. I finally found relief without all the other side effects that the opioids caused me in the past. It really does work for pain management.

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