How Medical Cannabis Works

What Are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are active chemicals in the Cannabis plant that cause drug-like effects throughout the body, including the central nervous system and the immune system. They are also known as phytocannabinoids. 

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the major cannabinoids of cannabis. The main active cannabinoid in cannabis is delta-9-THC. Another active cannabinoid is cannabidiol (CBD), which may relieve pain and lower inflammation without causing the "high" of delta-9-THC. Cannabinoids may be useful in treating the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment, as well as other diseases. Some of the possible positive effects of cannabinoids include:

  • Anti-inflammatory activity
  • Blocking cancer cell growth
  • Preventing the growth of blood vessels that supply tumors
  • Antiviral activity
  • Relieving muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis

Read more about Terpenes, the Endocannabinoid System, and the Entourage Effect below.

Terpenes And Terpenoids

Terpenes have been found to be the essential building blocks of complex plant hormones and molecules, pigments, sterols and cannabinoids in cannabis. Science has identified and characterized the molecular structure of around 20,000 terpenes, which makes it the largest category of plant chemicals. These aromatic compounds are found in the essential oils of plants and flowers. Terpenes are referred to as terpenoids when they are broken down by the presence of oxygen (e.g., drying and curing of flowers).

Of the 20,000 identified terpenes, there have been more than 120 discovered in cannabis. Only a few of them appear in high concentrations, but some have been found to have a number of benefits, including enhancing some of the desirable effects of cannabinoids and reducing some of the negative effects.

The Endocannabinoid System

One of the largest receptor systems in the human body is the Endocannabinoid system. Additionally, the body naturally produces two cannabinoids called endocannabinoids. These endocannabinoids are synthesized and released as needed by the body and do not appear to be stored for long-term use. Their levels naturally increase in the body in response to nerve injury and associated pain. Endocannabinoids regulate many of the body’s normal physiologic functions, including mood, anxiety, appetite, reward, stress, pain, metabolic function, and immune function. Cannabinoids also regulate communication between cells, especially in the immune and nervous systems. Thus, the endocannabinoid system is a potential target for the treatment of a wide range of different medical conditions. 

The endocannabinoid system, with its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and all of the body's organs, serves as a bridge between body and mind. By understanding this system, we begin to see a mechanism that explains how the unique nature of cannabis and a dose-dependent, disease-specific, individually-tailored approach to medical cannabis therapeutics is possible.

Whole Plant vs Synthetic Products


The Entourage Effect

Scientific evidence suggests that natural medical products incorporating a wide range of natural compounds found within the plant have a greater efficacy in treating many conditions than single, isolated compounds. This is known as the Entourage Effect.  Research has shown that single chemicals, such as cannabidiol (CBD), have a more limited effect in the treatment of certain medical conditions when used alone. When CBD is used in association with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), terpenes and other cannabinoids, the response is significantly improved in certain medical conditions.

Click here: Dr. Sanjay Gupta on The Entourage Effect (CNN)