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. Leafly.com 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.