Cannabis Sativa: More Than Just a Weed
Cannabis sativa, ganja, weed, dagga, hemp, maryjane—this plant has had many names spanning across cultures in all corners of the world. The first documented case of its use was in 2800 BCE when it was listed in the Emperor Shen Nung's (the father of Chinese medicine) pharmacopeia. Even as little as a hundred years ago, no one was overly concerned with the plant, and most individuals in the U.S. were seemingly unaware of it or how it could be exploited as a drug.
Using cannabis as an herbal medicine is not a new concept, but the knowledge and history for its traditional use was buried and hidden for decades, starting in 1937 when the United States implemented the Marihuana Tax Act. This act banned the plant from being imported or grown domestically. Scientific research and medical testing that had been ongoing came to a halt. A tax was applied to any approved imports, and penalties, such as prison time, were assigned to those who attempted to grow it.
The Endocannabinoid System: Our Body’s Regulator
Nearly 35 years ago, rather by accident, scientists discovered that humans have a complex molecular system that is essential for regulating nearly all of the body’s biological activities. When they made the discovery, they were actually studying cannabis and trying to better understand how the plant works, which is why this system was called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
It turns out that humans have ECS receptors all over the body that specifically engage with cannabinoids. Between 1988 and 1993, CB1 and CB2 receptors were identified. These are important receptor sites within the ECS that are involved in just about every aspect of human biological processes, including digestion, hormone regulation, immunity, sleep, and more. It’s important to note that humans naturally make cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids, in order to keep those organ systems healthy and functioning. However, it’s also possible to supplement with plant-derived cannabinoids in order to better support these processes or, more importantly, restabilize the system if it becomes depleted.
One way to think about the ECS is like a thermostat. It controls what needs to be ramped up or ramped down in order for everything in the body to stay comfortable. For example, when you are sick it is the ECS that signals the body to heat up. A fever is initiated in order to help fight off the bug you caught. After the hard work of eliminating the attacker is complete, the ECS signals the immune system to turn the heat back down, and your fever goes away.
Autoimmune diseases are an excellent example of when the ECS is out of balance. If it isn’t signaling properly, your body doesn’t understand when to turn down the inflammatory response, and therefore, can’t stabilize, seemingly turning against itself.
THC & CBD: A Story of Opposites
In 1964, Israeli scientists Raphael Mechoulam and Yechiel GaoniIt identified two primary compounds within Cannabis sativa, which they named cannabinoids and referred to them as THC and CBD. They were believed to be responsible for the effects associated with use of the herb. Since then, hundreds more have been identified, along with terpenes (which we will dive into later).
These two compounds couldn’t be more different, but together they do some pretty neat things. THC and CBD are primarily differentiated in the way that they engage cannabinoid receptors. THC binds directly to CB1 and CB2 receptors in the same way a key fits into a lock. This activates the receptors and causes them to signal, resulting in a specific set of physiological responses, such as pain reduction, relaxation, reduced blood pressure, or the intoxicating effect it has become well-known for.
Interestingly, CBD doesn’t bind to cannabinoid receptors. It hangs out nearby and adjusts the strength or quality of how the receptor behaves when it engages with either endogenous cannabinoids, or THC and other cannabinoids from cannabis. This is why CBD can reduce the intoxicating effects caused by THC. CBD is unique in the way that it allows the body to bring itself back into balance, naturally. This behavior is still being studied, and the reason behind why, or exactly how, CBD interacts with cannabinoid receptors in this way is not yet fully understood.
During the last several years of cannabis research, it has become clear that CBD is the best cannabinoid for maintaining balance and toning the ECS. One way it does this is by prolonging the life cycle of the endocannabinoids the body naturally produces, just like a reuptake inhibitor would. The endocannabinoids that we already have are responsible for regulating the ECS, and when they are given the opportunity to remain for longer on the surface of cells, they have more time to activate CB1 and CB2 receptors, resulting in greater therapeutic benefits.
Terpenes & The Entourage Effect
Terpenes are the most abundant and diverse plant compounds on Earth. They are responsible for the scent, taste, and pigment of their plant hosts. Many have medicinal properties, and this is related to the way that they protect the plant from predators, disease, and extreme environmental changes. While cannabinoids are unique to cannabis, terpenes are not, and can be found in all of our favorite aromatic botanicals, such as flowers like rose and lavender; citrus peels; or spices like cinnamon and clove.
The aromatic terpenes in cannabis are responsible for both its unique aroma and the specific way you feel after using a particular strain. Sometimes, the effect is energizing, others can be sedative or might change the way you perceive pain. The cannabinoids themselves have predictable behaviors and are busy engaging the endocannabinoid system and supporting the important biological processes it regulates. Their actions don’t change from strain to strain, but terpenes do.
Therefore, depending on the terpenes present while you are consuming cannabinoids, such as THC or CBD, your therapeutic benefit will significantly change along with your experience, in terms of feeling sleepy, awake, hungry, uplifted, etc. It is the combined efforts of all the plant compounds present in cannabis that create a therapeutic effect much greater than if a single compound were used. This is what has been named the “entourage effect”.
Intentional Use of Terpenes with CBD
With each year that passes, more and more research about the compounds in cannabis is published, and it is becoming quite clear that humans are an excellent match, biologically, with all that cannabis has to offer. It turns out that the role of terpenes is stealing the show a bit in terms of synergistic effects, as well as maximizing and modulating our experience with CBD in order to feel the way we want. This approach is exciting and full of potential because there is another well-understood modality that has been in practice for years that leverages the benefits of terpenes: aromatherapy!
Aromatherapists have already been intelligently pairing different aromatic compounds, terpenes, in order to achieve a therapeutic result. They understand how the constituents engage with each other, and a decent amount of research has been conducted out on specific pairings as well. It is a natural next step to combine the practice of aromatherapy with the use of beneficial cannabinoids, like CBD, in order to be intentional about magnifying the efficacy of both compounds.
Some of the most common terpenes found in Cannabis sativa are monoterpenes like limonene (citrus peels), both isomers of pinene (evergreens/conifers), myrcene (hops/lemongrass), and linalool (lavender/bergamot). However, important sesquiterpenes, like β-caryophyllene and its isomer, are what typically best survive the various methods of extraction that the plant is put through to create an end-user product.
β-caryophyllene has been labeled the first phytocannabinoid, a dietary cannabinoid, outside of the cannabis genus after receiving closer inspection from cannabis researchers. It is associated with CB2 receptor activation and exhibited strong anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. Essential oils from copaiba resin and black pepper express up to 50% β-caryophyllene and should be incorporated routinely with isolated CBD for maximizing the potential of both compounds.
More research is needed to deepen our understanding of the countless combinations of cannabinoids with terpenes from essential oils and exactly what can be achieved with specific pairings and synergistic blends. In the meantime, we should continue to support professional product development that utilizes cannabidiol within the practice of aromatherapy. Anecdotal evidence is valuable in its own right, and many are already benefiting positively from well-considered products that harness the knowledge shared in this document.
Reader’s Digest (2021) The Essential Guide To CBD (p.10-41)