Most of us probably took biology at some point in high school – as our teacher droned on and on about mitosis or meiosis or cow retinas, we fiddled with our phones or, if we’re of a certain age, doodled in our Trapper Keepers. Biology, it turns out, isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. But, when it involves marijuana, the thrill climbs just a little higher.
The biology of marijuana is dominated by cannabinoids, the chemical compounds the cannabis flower secretes. THC and CBD, for instance, are cannabinoids. The effects of marijuana are a result of these chemicals. In fact, if it weren’t for cannabinoids, pot wouldn’t be pot at all; it’d be something only botanists found interesting. And maybe people with a leaf fetish.
How Cannabinoids Work
Cannabinoids work by imitating compounds our bodies produce naturally. These natural compounds, called endocannabinoids, help regulate many functions of the body. Endocannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors, which are found in most parts of the brain as well as the immune system. They play a role in everything from immune response to bone growth, from blood pressure to sleep.
When endocannabinoids all work together, the body is balanced and healthy. On the other hand, when they fight amongst themselves, medical conditions arise out of the chaos.
Endocannabinoids, as well as their receptors, make up the endocannabinoid system. This system is found in even the most primitive organisms, suggesting that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably pretty important.
Interestingly, cannabinoids aren’t limited to their receptors: some are independent chemicals, hell bent to make it on their own. Certain cannabinoids are wonderful antioxidants while others, not binding to the receptors themselves, are bossy enough to dictate how other cannabinoids bind.
A Closer Look
For anyone hoping to truly nerd-out, hold on to your microscope because here we go! Cannabinoids weren’t discovered until the 1980s when a scientist spotted them wearing very short shorts and dancing to Wham. Or maybe they were really discovered through radioimmunoassay techniques used on a rat brain. You be the judge.
Before their discovery, it was believed that cannabinoids produced their effects by interacting with cell membranes, rather than interacting with the membrane receptors. Only two types of cannabinoid receptors are presently known: CB1 and CB2 (they’re named by scientists, not wordsmiths). They’re located throughout the human body as well as the bodies of other mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles.
Different cannabinoids bond to different receptors, producing different results (and it’s likely that there are more than two receptor types – they just haven’t been discovered yet).
Cannabis contains at least 85 different cannabinoids (and probably several others).
Strains are continuously being created to deliver larger doses of certain chemicals in hopes of offering relief for specific symptoms.
Cannabinoids can be ingested a few different ways. They can be inhaled, vaporized, or consumed orally. They can also be injected, placed under the tongue, or administered via transdermal patch. For people looking for something truly new, they can even be used as a rectal suppository. Once they enter the body, they are metabolized the same place as most drugs: the liver. Some cannabinoids are stored in fat as well, which is one of the reasons a positive drug test can occur several weeks after ingestion.
Cannabinoids and Cancer
If there is one disease begging for a cure, it’s cancer: the C word. A malady that knows no boundaries, it attacks the young and old, the fit and feeble. It’s also elusive, sometimes going into remission only to rear its ugly head again down the line. While chemotherapy and radiation have extended lives and offered cures, they aren’t always effective. This has lead scientists to look at cannabinoids.
Studies suggest that cannabinoids are beneficial to cancer patients in a few ways. According to the American Cancer Society, those who took marijuana extracts during clinical trials tended to need less opiates for pain control. There may be a more direct perk, too:
In some experiments, THC and CBD have either slowed tumor growth or induced death of cancer cells when introduced inside laboratory dishes.
How this affects human tumors is yet to be determined, which is why treating cancer with marijuana alone isn’t advocated. Ten years from now? Who knows.
Of course, cannabinoids may also prevent cancer from occurring in the first place. Recent studies point their fingers at a main cause of cancer: inflammation. Chronic inflammation has the potential to damage DNA, providing a foundation on which tumors build. This explains why cigarette smokers are more prone to lung cancer, why people with ulcerative colitis are more prone to colon cancer, why people with heartburn are more prone to esophageal cancer (and so on and so on).
Luckily, many things prevent inflammation. Exercise, a healthy BMI, and certain foods (like olive oil, tomatoes, fish, fruit, and curry) help prevent it. Straight from the “Best News Ever” section, chocolate is also an anti-inflammatory (dark chocolate offers the most benefit by far). Your immune system prevents inflammation, too. This isn’t to say you need to live in a bubble, but maybe don’t go around licking petri dishes, either.
From a medicinal standpoint, aspirin gets a gold star. Per MD Anderson, it not only reduces the risk of cancer, but it also slows certain cancers and keeps others from coming back. It does this by, you guessed it, fighting inflammation. Since cannabinoids also fight inflammation, it’s theorized that they provide a similar benefit. It makes sense, after all.
Too Good to be True?
Even with science’s backing, naysayers will always exist. For some, the potential link between marijuana and a cancer cure is too simple to be true. But history shows us that it happens. In 1928, the scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accident. His discovery is largely hailed as the most important of the 20th century for one reason: it’s already saved around 200 million lives.
In the end, sometimes it really is that easy. Sometimes the answer you’ve been searching for was planted right in front of you all along.