marijuana leaf as a shadow of a prescription bottle

Marijuana: The Good, The Bad, and The Yet Unknown

March 19, 2015

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Whether you smoke it or put it in a brownie, marijuana is a consumable, and as such, deserves the reflection of a nutritionist. In keeping stride with the much quoted Hippocrates adage, “Food is thy Medicine”, marijuana is a plant that can be grown in your garden right alongside carrots, garlic and oregano. Even so, this herb is more often referred to as a drug rather than a spice or a food product. The United States Pharmacopia listed marijuana as a medicine before World War II, but this classification was revoked in the renowned encyclopedia in 1942. The American Medical Association has issued a statement opposing its usage for medicinal purposes. Many countries however, Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Uruguay and Spain, to name a few, condone marijuana’s medicinal properties.

While the topic of its benefits and/or perils often provoke controversy at dinner parties, the fact remains that marijuana impacts the body in a myriad of ways. On the recreational side, the feel-good, mood-enhancing “high” is most often accompanied by an increased appetite; “the munchies”. Those opposed, tout that short-term memory, response time, and cognitive processing are all negatively impacted by marijuana use. This too, has a ring of truth.

Alaska and Washington DC recently joined Colorado and Washington state in legalizing marijuana’s recreational use, twenty US states approve of it for medicinal purposes, and Uruguay, as a nation, has created a legal market for it. Even so, on a federal level, Marijuana is still illegal in the United States. In fact, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 substance, which vilifies it as a dangerous drug with “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse.”

Thinking that this classification was based on some scientific founding, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta wrote an article for TIME magazine on why he would vote “NO” on pot. He has since recounted, apologized and reversed his stance stating that marijuana does not have a high potential for abuse and does have legitimate medical applications. The NTI-trained side of me yearns to know;

What happens on a molecular level when human cells and marijuana intersect?

The sad truth, however, is that while turmeric has been researched ad-nauseum regarding its anti-inflammatory properties, few studies have investigated any of marijuana’s potential advantages. Sanjay Gupta’s findings show that only 6% of all marijuana studies performed in the US are designed to research marijuana’s benefits, while the other 94% illuminate harmful aspects of the drug.

Other countries are progressively analyzing how marijuana works on many biological pathways. At ETH Zurich University in Switzerland, the anti-inflammatory properties of hemp’s essential oil are being explored. Over 450 substances are present in the marijuana plant and only three of these induce euphoria. These three cannabinoids, as they’re called, attach to two different receptors in our cells known as CB1 and CB2. In the central nervous system, when a specific molecule locks into the CB1 receptor our perception is affected. The CB2 receptor, when activated, signals the cell to reduce the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines (small proteins that promote an inflammation cascade). The Zurich researchers have isolated a substance called betacarophyllene which makes up as much as thirty-five percent of marijuana’s essential oil. Beta-caryophyllene locks into the CB2 receptor, reducing the inflammation cycle, but because it does not fit into the CB1 receptor, it does not trigger any psychotic response.

At the University of Anglia in the UK, researchers are studying the impact of THC (tetrahydrocannibonal), the principal psychoactive compound in marijuana, on cancer pathology. In addition to the CB2 receptor, the GPR55 receptor is targeted by THC. These two receptors are found to be overexpressed in cancer cells. The effect of THC on these receptors modulates cancer cell signaling and shows promise of reducing tumor growth.

At the Complutense University in Spain, studies are being performed on glioblastoma tumors. Glioblastoma is a rare but aggressive form of brain cancer. Intracranial dosages of THC have been administered to mice resulting in protein degradation within cancer cells. Also known as autophagy, tumor cells respond to the cannabinoid (THC), by using an endogenous enzyme to self-digest.

The Department of Endocrinology at William Harvey Research Institute, alongside other institutions in London, has been focusing on the metabolic aspects of marijuana research. AMPK is an enzyme that gauges energy production and may regulate the efficacy of diabetic prescription drugs such as Metformin. Their studies show that marijuana stimulates the AMPK enzyme in the heart and hypothalamus while inhibiting the enzyme in adipose tissue and in the liver. This bit of news could demonstrate that cannabinoids have special heart-protective properties. It also explains the appetite-stimulating effect that marijuana has on the hypothalamus.

GW Pharmaceuticals is currently developing a drug based on marijuana derivatives known as GW42004 for type 2 diabetes. The British-based company is better known for their drug Sativex which is a cannabis plant product used in treatment protocols for Multiple Sclerosis. Experimental trials are underway for their cannabis drug Epidiolex which has promise in lessoning seizures for patients suffering from Epilepsy.

There are many other applications that promise to bring marijuana into the medical arena in the future. Glaucoma, pain management, Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease are a few that are worth mentioning.

While further research is certainly in order when it comes to the benefits of marijuana, the temptation to self-medicate is not the immediate answer. As a nutritionist, I am in no way suggesting that marijuana should be used for any of the above ailments without the explicit direction of a professional healthcare practitioner. As with all foods, individuals can develop sensitivities and allergies to the healing herb. With marijuana, these allergic reactions can be immediate and/or take years to manifest. In some instances, the reactions can be severe. Few physicians are aware of the phenomenon of Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome. This condition has sent many long-term, habitual users of marijuana to the emergency room. The symptoms present with cyclical vomiting and/or abdominal pain.

Note to practitioners dealing with patients complaining of mysterious recurring nausea: Two questions to ask: 1) Have you ever tried Marijuana to ease the nausea? (Marijuana is often used with chemotherapy patients for this purpose.) Clients, who may not otherwise divulge their smoking habits, may reveal their marijuana usage in response to this question. 2) Are your symptoms lessened by hot baths? This is a dead-ringer question. Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome does not respond to any known nausea medication (although antipsychotic drugs may prove helpful). Across the board, however, suffering patients find relief in taking hot baths.

While there is much we still don’t understand about marijuana, the prejudices against the drug are preventing what we do know to be communicated. I encourage you to research this herb on your own and keep an open mind when it comes to marijuana’s medical applications.

Related reading… Endocannabinoid System 101, Should CBD Be Used With Nutrition Therapy?, and What Cannabis Has to Do with Omega-3s and Nutrition Therapy


Image:  lightsource/depositphotos

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