This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on Cannabinoids, which are naturally found in plants to support many aspects of health.

Now that laws have evolved whereby the cannabis plant is freed from its legal constraints (on a state by state basis), research that was once plentiful during the ’50s and early ’60s is now in the process of being revived. Not only is research on this plant blooming, but the current setting of what we understand about how our brain and bodies work in 21st-century science is also opening whole new applications for this medicinal plant.

First off, it is important to know that all cannabis plants (both industrial hemp as well as medicinal marijuana) contain cannabinoids, with the primary difference being the content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the primary cannabinoid associated with the neurological sensation of being “high” (also colloquially termed “stoned”, “baked”, etc.). The primary difference between “marijuana” (Cannabis strains high in THC, like C. Indica) and “industrial hemp” (Cannabis strains low in THC, like C. Sativa) is predominantly that THC level, with hemp containing less than 0.3% THC with relation to total cannabinoids (as set forth by the 2018 Farm Bill) being allowed to be sold without a prescription (on a state-by-state basis). In order to purchase high-THC products, patients require a “medical marijuana card” by being prescribed it by an MD, DO, or NP. Unfortunately, when passing this law Maine failed to include the only doctors with training in herbal medicine – naturopathic doctors.

The second important consideration is that there are hundreds of various cannabinoids in cannabis plants, with few cannabinoids being rigorously studied. One such cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD), in contrast, is well studied to the extent that we see significant qualified health responses. Here in Maine, we have the ability to purchase low THC products from various locals – from gas stations to pet shops and everything in-between. But laws surrounding the sale of these products make it hard to compare value, dose, and efficacy between products. This is concerning, especially when it is often expensive and if a sub-optimal product is tried without benefit, one might not try CBD again, even if they might benefit from a product with a known and validated CBD level.

The last piece of information that is critical for our understanding is that humans and many mammals have an endogenous “endocannabinoid system”, which means that our biochemistry not only has systems in place to utilize cannabinoids, including specialized receptors, it also has the capacity to make its own substances, like anandamide, that can bind to existing cannabinoid receptors in our brain and have a cannabinoid effect – Think “runner’s high” which is a manifestation of anandamide release secondary to exercise that makes us feel good.

With these cannabinoids and our endocannabinoid system now better understood, a plethora of research is coming out about the benefits of CBD in particular. Early research demonstrates benefits for sleep, anxiety, neurological pain, digestion, seizures, and immune system modulation, among others. Additionally, CBD has a very low incidence of adverse events, supporting its safe and effective use in a broad swath of patients.

Stay tuned for Part 2 when we will explore these benefits in more depth.