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CBD: Lessons from the Past, Medicine for the Future
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15 min read

Summary of ideas

  • CBD medical use is spreading despite the social stigma still surrounding it
  • CBD acts on the Endocannabinoid system, an essential player in human physiology
  • CBD is currently being researched and used as a primary or complementary therapy for a wide range of illnesses
  • Human beings are no strangers to CBD and the Cannabis plant. Its history is closely linked to ours

Claire and Thomas are both 18. They suffer from Autistic Spectrum Disorder, a neurodevelopment disorder which causes them to experience very high levels of anxiety. In the months previous to trying a CBD-based protocol, their symptoms worsened to the point they were hardly able to go to school without having fully-fledged panic attacks. After a couple of months of taking a full-spectrum CBD tincture, their coping abilities have improved to so much that they don’t rely on it anymore; they just take it when needed.

Chelsea Leyland hugging a medical Cannabis plant. Photo from

Chelsea Leyland is a New York-based British actress and DJ who was diagnosed with Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy, one of the most brutal forms of epilepsy currently known, at the age of 13. A few years ago she made her story public. CBD oil helped her wean herself off the prescribed medication which, for 16 years, had altered her personality to the extent that shows subject to screaming fits of rage and would leave her battling insomnia, heart palpitations and memory loss. She is now one of the most vocal Medical Cannabis activists on the scene: “Everyone associates cannabis with getting stoned,” she said to Harper BazaarBut that’s not what it is. It’s medicine.

A significant part of the medical community agrees with her. CBD seems to be uniquely safe and effective, and its therapeutic potential is currently under investigation in labs around the world. It provides hope for those suffering from Chronic Pain, Arthritis and Insomnia, as well as from various types of neuropsychiatric illnesses, ranging from Autism to Depression and PTSD to Alcohol Addiction, and Neurodegenerative Diseases like Parkinson and Alzheimer’s Disease. Last but not least, CBD is being explored for its potential in the treatment of Cancer.

How can one herb have so many powerful medical properties, with minimal side effects? The answer might lie in the way the human body is made.  

Back in the early 90s, researchers were trying to understand the effects of Cannabis on the body. Much to their amazement, they discovered a system within us which they called Endocannabinoid system (ECS), short for Endogenous Cannabinoid. The word “Cannabinoid” might mislead some of us into thinking that this system requires us to consume marijuana, but that isn’t the case.

In Latin, “Endo” means “within” and “Genous” means “producing”. This is something our bodies produce on their own…naturally. The Endocannabinoid system is entirely of our own (body’s) making.

The Endocannabinoid system turned out to be one of the most important systems our bodies have in terms of regulating physiological balance, aka homeostasis. Disrupted homeostasis = physiological havoc, followed by disease and eventually death.

It has effects on functions that we are all quite used to “self-adjusting” in one way or another, whether it be by exercising or eating or sleeping or taking supplements and/or pills. It mediates Pain Perception (Analgesia), Stress Management, Mood, Memory, Appetite, Sleep, Metabolism and Inflammation (also known as the Immune Response).

Equally as important, although far from being under our conscious control, are the creation of new neurons (Neurogenesis) and their protection (Neuroprotection), Bone growth, Tumour regulation, Temperature Regulation and Autonomic Function, the part of the nervous system which regulates “automatic” processes such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, etc.

A molecule of “bliss” (anandamide) that our bodies are able to produce on their own

The very basic workings of the Endocannabinoid System
The ESC is composed of 3 parts: Receptors, Ligands and Enzymes.
The Receptors are found on the surface of cells, and you could think of them as Locks in a door. Ligands, i.e the molecules mentioned above, are like Keys. When they are put into the Locks (Receptors) on the cell wall, they produce certain changes or send signals inside the cell. The cell/tissue/organ then acts accordingly. The enzymes could be likened to builders, they either build up the molecules or come and take them away and destroy them.

The human body has two main cannabinoids (CB) receptors, CB1 and CB2. CB1 is primarily located in the central nervous system, though it is also found peripheral tissues.
CB2 receptors can be found in the periphery of immune cells, in the spleen and gastrointestinal (GI) tract and at lower concentrations compared to CB1, in the central nervous system.

CBD is one of our own Endocannabinoid’s plant-derived cousins. Short for Cannabidiol \ka-nə-bə-ˈdī-ˌȯl/, it is the second most abundant cannabinoid found in both Hemp and Cannabis after THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the molecule that gives your stereotypical high). They are referred to as Cannabinoid Agonists, i.e. mimetic agents which produce the same effects as Endocannabinoids.

There are two main strands of Cannabis which produce Phytocannabinoids: Cannabis Sativa L or Hemp, which has the more pragmatic uses;
and Cannabis Sativa (Sativa comes from the Latin word for “useful” ) -subgenous Indica. It is generally accepted that Sativa has higher THC content, whilst Indica has higher CBD content.

In the media and on product packaging, CBD is often referred to as “non-psychoactive”, but this statement can be misleading. In fact, any substance that has a direct effect on brain function is considered “psychoactive”. What is true is that, unlike THC, CBD consumption does not produce the euphoric sensations given by “cannabis intoxication”, i.e you don’t get high (so it should be labelled as “non-psychotropic”).

When we introduce Phytocannabinoids into our bodies, they travel to the CB1 and CB2 receptors and “fool them” into thinking they are Endocannabinoids. This is why consuming, for instance, CBD oil has certain effects on us, like relaxation or appetite increase.

Mechanisms of Action

Disclaimer: current knowledge on the Endocannabinoid system is very limited, especially compared to other physiological systems that run on different currencies (see dopamine, adrenaline and even oxytocin). This is mainly down to the fact that Cannabis has been demonized and made illegal around the world in the last 70 years.

What is clear to researchers at this stage is that CBD has low affinity for CB1 receptors in the Central Nervous System. CBD binds very well, however, to CB2 receptors found in immune cells and in parts of the nervous system which do not seem to elicit the mind-altering effects of Cannabis.
CBD does seem to affect the Reward System of our brains, which have an interdependent relationship with parts of the Frontal Lobe, such as the Prefrontal and the Frontal Cortex, that allow us to plan, make judgements and even inhibit inappropriate behaviours.

Health Benefits and Side Effects

The most compelling evidence for CBD effectiveness comes from some of the toughest forms of childhood epilepsy syndromes which normally don’t respond to anti-seizure medications, such as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS) and Dravet syndrome. In numerous studies, CBD was able to reduce the number of seizures, and in some cases, it was even able to stop them altogether.

The video below tells Charlotte’s story, who was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome at 2 1/2 years of age. CBD calmed her 300 weekly seizures, also sparing her from the heavy side effects prescription meds inflicted on her body, sometimes even stopping her heart from functioning. Recently, the Federal Drug Administration approved the first-ever CBD-containing medicine for these conditions, Epidiolex.

In other studies, CBD has been found to act as an immune modulator, that is, it targeted specific cells in the immune system helped, reducing inflammation.

Its effects have been found to be more potent (by about 20fold gram x gram) than those of Ibuprofen, with the added bonus that, unlike the well-known over-the-counter medication, CBD does not irritate the Gastro-Intestinal (GI) system. How? It doesn’t shut down Prostaglandins (the protective cell layer of the GI tract) which Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can damage. And it also doesn’t expose us to the same risk of heart attack, or liver and renal dysfunction.

In terms of side effects, Dr Greenspoon from Harvard Medical School says the main risk to our health is not posed by CBD itself, but by marketing.
When sold as a dietary supplement, the safety and purity of dietary supplements are not as strictly regulated as with medicines, “so you cannot know for sure that the product you buy has active ingredients at the dose listed on the label”.

CBD has been found to increase the level in your blood of the blood thinner coumadin, and it can raise levels of certain other medications in your blood by the exact same mechanism that grapefruit juice activates. Other reported side effects include nausea, fatigue and irritability.

What makes CBD so appealing to the consumer is that it is natural, relatively cheap and easily available. For the same reasons, it is less appealing to medicine retailers, as it cuts into the big pharma market share.

But the use of CBD and the Cannabis/Hemp plant, in general, isn’t at all new to the market and to our own species! In fact, the presence of Cannabis-like molecules in our own bodies shows that the evolution of the human race seems to be inextricably linked to that of the plant.

Homo Sapiens and Cannabis: a fascinating, life-long relationship

Cannabis appeared in nature about 36 million years ago, in the Central Asian-Himalayan region, and there is evidence that Homo Sapiens have been using it for all sorts of purposes since 10,000 BC.

By 8000 BC, it had already spread to Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where it was also used medicinally and ritualistically, in addition to its more practical purposes for textiles, building materials, rope, packaging and biofuels. Precisely because of its multipurpose nature and its widespread use throughout history, some even go as far as saying that it should be considered the primary raw material in the creation of the technological culture that now defines us as species.

The ships that allowed Christopher Columbus to “discover” the “New World” carried “80 tonnes of hemp rigging and sails”, so Cannabis use was pivotal to the creation of the Euro-centric model our world has been running on since 1492. Between the 16th and 19th century, it was even promoted by the Portuguese and British colonial governments as a way of connecting with the indigenous workforces of the countries they had colonized.

In 16th-century England, Hemp was so popular that its cultivation was required by law. King Henry VIII decreed that “all landholders set aside one-quarter acre for the cultivation of flax or Cannabis (Hemp) for every sixty acres of land“, in order to provide the fibres that would satisfy societal demand.

The 20th Century: the prohibitionist smokescreen

In 18th century-US, Hemp was considered to be a great source of wealth. Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington used to cultivate it on their plantations and considered it to be an important money crop. Another founding father, Governor Morris, stated that unlike Tobacco, Hemp wasof first necessity to the wealth and health of our nation.”

At the start of the last century, Cannabis was also the third-leading prescribed medication in the US. What the pharmaceutical companies already knew at the time was that there was a strong difference in benefits when using one strain, Indica, rather the other, Sativa. What they didn’t have a way of measuring back then, was the fact that Indica has a higher concentration of CBD relative to THC, whilst Sativa contains more THC. 

According to Dr Aggawal, the U.S Marijuana Tax Act passed in 1937 was the Trojan Horse of a racist agenda and “scapegoating rhetoric”: whilst people of European descent mainly used it in the form of tinctures, other less-affluent societal groups (such as people of African and Latin American descent), smoked it.

The racialised campaign of the time is perfectly summed up by the hour-long 1937 film, “Reefer Madness”, in which Marijuana is referred to “as the burning weed with its roots in hell”. Originally financed as a moral warning from a church group, it soon became widespread political propaganda that perpetuated inaccurate misconceptions. 

A taste of some highly polarized, unscientific propaganda – the Reefer Madness Trailer, 1936

Despite its highly unscientific roots, the prohibition campaign spread far and wide in space and time. In 1980, Ronald Regan launched the prohibitionist campaign that would then lead to a worldwide, domino-effect social stigma and ban on Cannabis:  Marijuana, Pot, Grass, whatever you wanna call it, is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States. US Federal law still stands by his statement today, as it has for the last 42 years: Cannabis is considered a “Schedule I substance”, alongside heroin, namely a highly dangerous substance devoid of any medical utility or safety. 

Today’s renaissance and a look to the future

Despite the fact that some healthcare professionals are concerned that the CBD market craze has boomed ahead of researchers’ ability to produce a robust backup of scientific evidence, as of 2018, the sale of CBD has spread to 50 countries in 6 continents.

There is no doubt CBD is the biggest new player in the international health market, and it has no plans to step down from its throne: its industry is projected to grow to 32 billion dollars by 2022! 

Whilst CBD vapes or CBD-infused gummy bears might be just the latest, fun/trendy fashion, its applications in the medical field are giving hope to many people around the world suffering from different health conditions. It’s providing special relief to children who suffer from aggressive forms of epilepsy, and it has also been successfully used as a complementary treatment for neurodegenerative disease, chronic conditions and mental health issues… the list ranges far and wide. 

The important and exciting shift occurring in our societies at the moment is, slowly but surely, leaving the negative stigma associated with Cannabis to the abyss of the past. And whilst it might not prove to be the magical elixir it has been purported to be, today’s CBD craze is riding the wave of a newfound collective awareness: natural is better than chemical, at least in this case. The medicine of the future might be greener than expected.

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23 / 09 / 2019 // Written by Sylvia Helen Goodrick
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