Clearing the Smoke on MS and Cannabinoids (Yes, Marijuana!)

Eric Downer
Written by
Eric Downer

Mary Jane. Weed. Pot. Ganga. It’s known by many names, but the root of it all starts with the cannabis plant. For the past ten years, I have been fascinated by the potential benefits of cannabis…no, not those types of benefits folks. I’ve been interested in the benefits of cannabis as a potential medical treatment. More specifically, what do we know about cannabis and MS? Can parts of the cannabis plant not only help MSers feel better, but also target the underlying mechanisms contributing to the disease?

The Basics

The cannabis sativa plant contains almost 500 different compounds, 100 of which are termed cannabinoids. The cannabinoid we currently know the most about is a compound called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main ingredient underlying the “high” or psychoactivity associated with cannabis use. Further important cannabinoid components in the plant include cannabidiol and cannabinol (say that ten times twice!)—tongue twisters that make up large proportions of the plant resin extract, but are not thought to be major contributors to the overall psychoactivity of cannabis use.

In the early 1990’s, the field of medical marijuana saw two major breakthroughs. The first was the identification of cannabinoid receptors, specific proteins discovered on the surface of our bodies’ cells and tissues. These cellular switchboards ultimately allowed researchers to understand how cannabinoids impact us on a cellular level.

The second breakthrough was the discovery of endogenous cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids, which are synthesized throughout our bodies and also act like cannabinoid receptors.

So now that I’ve given you a little history, here’s the simple breakdown:

• Cannabinoids = components of the cannabis plant.

• Endocannabinoids = the cannabinoid compounds produced in our bodies.

• Cannabinoid receptors = the proteins that allow both of these compounds to act in the body.

What does this mean for MS?

As many readers know, MS is often described as the nervous system coming under attack, with the front line of attack being orchestrated by immune cells passing from the blood into the brain. Cannabinoids have been shown to dampen this attack, blocking the movement of damaging immune cells into the nervous system.

Cannabinoids have a wide range of effects on the functioning of cells and organs of our immune and nervous systems, the systems involved in MS progression. This is because the machinery that allows cannabinoids to function, the cannabinoid receptors, are abundant on the cells of our immune and nervous systems . In addition, the two major endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-AG, are produced in both of these system.

The large body of research evidence has made it clear: cannabinoids can control the survival and death of nerve cells. But what, exactly does this mean for MS?

• As potent neuroprotectors, cannabinoids have intricate effects on pain pathways in the nervous system.

• Due to their impact on the nervous system, cannabinoids have potent pain relieving properties.

• Cannabinoids possess anti-inflammatory properties, and can thus regulate networks of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines in immune cells and brain cells.

This is all potentially good news, but more research is needed to determine the specific effects of cannabinoids in humans and exactly what role the endogenous cannabinoid system plays in the development of MS.

So the next time you hear about medical marijuana, look beyond the smoke and think about how this special plant impacts our bodies’ intricate systems. As I have learned, we are just beginning to scratch the surface of cannabis’s full potential.

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