Gallagher 6ced096bc457d4b73fb4cad0e562e72d533a64a0a1a6bfd78ac0630ccedc3343

Seeing through the smoke

Christopher Gallagher

How we’re just beginning to understand cannabis as medicine

Ar 170909725
David Holub/DGO
Ar 170909725
David Holub/DGO

What do arthritis, cancer, chronic pain, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and severe nausea have in common? These are the conditions must commonly treated with cannabis. Nearly every state with an operational medical marijuana program includes AIDS, cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, and MS as a qualifying condition for which a doctor may recommend (never actually prescribe) cannabis as a treatment for their patients. It seems counterintuitive that this disparate grouping of maladies – the end stage syndrome of a virus that virulently attacks the immune system; colonies of malignant cells that invade and destroy the tissue surrounding them; a central nervous system seizure disorder; an ocular disease characterized by pressure and vision impairment; another CNS disease that interrupts the brain’s ability to communicate with both itself and the patient’s body – would be treated with one medicine and begs questions as to the possible connections among them.

The answer to the almost unbelievable range of efficacy of cannabis as a treatment lies within a system of the body that is only beginning to be studied and understood by doctors and scientist. It’s known as the endogenous cannabanoid system (and it’s contained in every single human body, as well as those of every other living mammal, sea squirts, and each of the more than 25,000 species of nematodes, aka roundworms – ewwwwwwww, right?!?!?).

In 1982, American molecular pharmacologist William A. Devane and Czech chemist Lumir Hanus, working in the same Israeli lab where Dr. Raphael Mechoulam had isolated THC two decades earlier, made a discovery that would fundamentally change our understanding of cannabis as medicine. They found a chemical created in our bodies that works with receptors in all of our organs including the brain, the glands, our immune cells, and the entire network of connective tissues and also generator sites within us; they named it anandamide after the Sanskrit word for “bliss, joy, or happiness.”

This aptly named bliss molecule – nearly identical to the more than 400 cannabanoids produced by each cannabis plant – is responsible for homoeostasis, the bodily process of maintaining stability between systems faced by the full range of external changes and stressors that life throws at each of us on a daily basis. This homeostatic balance is, in fact, the body’s defense against the constant threat of cascading physical damage and the progression from suboptimal health to disease, and, if left unchecked, to death. The molecules do this by maintaining a state of balanced health at the cellular level.

The breadth of functions impacted by the cannabanoid system is staggering, and includes having effects on the areas of memory, the neural regeneration of the brain region known as the hippocampus, appetite, metabolism, stress responses, social behavior including anxiety and exploration, immunity, tremors, pain, female reproduction, the autonomic nervous system, temperature regulation, and sleep. There is research currently taking place to analyze whether certain conditions are actually the result of cannabanoid deficiency. Because of the relatively short time frame during which the politically-restrained scientific community has been able to conduct effective research, we have only exposed the tip of the iceberg of what will lead to unlimited medical breakthroughs on the horizon for this truly human-sympathetic plant.

Christopher Gallagher lives with his wife and their four dogs and two horses. Life is pretty darn good. Contact him at chrstphrgallagher@gmail.com.