CHANGING THE CONVERSATION
At the University of British Columbia in Canada, Dr. Zach Walsh, a professor of clinical psychology and addiction, operates a cannabis research lab. And, like Michael Masterson-Smith, Walsh loves his work.
“I’m just fascinated by the plant,” Walsh says. “I’m fascinated by what it does, on so many levels. It’s fascinating at the neurochemical level, it’s fascinating at the social level. And as we saw the whole profile of cannabis changing over the last couple decades, I thought, ‘That’s exactly where I need to be.’”
Each of Walsh’s graduate students, who run their own projects on CBD and TH C and their medical effects, operates under their own federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant. The cannabis lab team members are paid by the Canadian government to find out how medical cannabis can work to increase wellness. Walsh’s own research is on the effects of CBD on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which we’ll hone in on later on in this book; his students study everything from cannabis’s ability to treat pain to its potential to make it easier for non-athletes to excel at exercise activities like running and yoga to its ability to solve the opioid crisis.
As excited as they are for the possibilities that cannabis offers the medical community, these researchers remain professionally skeptical. As Michelle Thiessen, a graduate student in the lab, explains, even she was very critical of cannabis before she started her research.
“I grew up during the ‘Just Say No’ and the DARE campaigns,” Thiessen says, “so I was exposed to a lot of fear-mongering when it came to cannabis. I was a staunch opponent against it. It wasn’t until I started to learn that cannabis can be an effective medicine, that it had thousands of years of use behind it, that I wanted to look into it a little bit further.”
We’ll further explore this history of cannabis use for medical purposes, but what you need to know is that while not all plants can grow in all climates, cannabis can. It can grow in marshes; it can grow in the Himalayas; it can grow in the desert. Because the plant has so many functions—such as its use as a clothing, paper and industrial fiber, as a food and as a medicine—we can trace its history back at least 6,000 years. Ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Indian and Palestinian texts refer to its application to help with inflammation, skin rashes, gynecological issues and stomach ailments.1
To this end, the work at the Zach Walsh Research Lab is hugely important, but it isn’t unique. It’s grounded in our collective history, and Walsh’s team follows a trail of evidence-based studies from around the world that indicates why we need to pay attention to cannabis.
The medical mystery unwrapped
CBD is one of an estimated 140 or more compounds found in the cannabis plant that are the active ingredients known as cannabinoids. That means that CBD is one of many, many phytocannabinoids, many of which are yet to be discovered.2
Surprisingly, cannabis, or a neurochemical form of it, is also found inside the human body. And we need to replenish this system every day of our lives.
“The endocannabinoid system is essentially a whole bunch of receptor sites throughout the body,” Thiessen explains. Think of these receptor sites as locks. “All of these little locks are located throughout our body and then our brain. And our body produces endocannabinoids that fit into those locks as keys. Endocannabinoids are neuromodulators, which are different than neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers in our bodies that move information along our central nervous system to our brain and back again. Endocannabinoids tell our neurotransmitters what to do. The endocannabinoid system is referred to as the master regulator, so it controls our body’s abilities to eat, sleep, rest, digest and relax.” This is one of the most amazing things I’ve learned about the science of cannabis. Our human bodies endogenously, internally and on their own, produce many of the same compounds that you find in the cannabis plant. Endocannabinoids are produced internally by our body, and phytocannabinoids are produced by the cannabis plant. In both cases, when these cannabinoids are present in our body, they are managed by a neurotransmitter system that is present in every organ of our body, in all of our connective tissue, in our skin, in our circulatory system, in our immune system, in just about every single part of the human body.3
“We are now at a point where you have to understand how these plants can be so relevant in so many areas—literally everywhere in the body,” says Mauro Maccarrone, head of biochemistry and molecular biology at University of Rome’s Campus Bio- Medico, who has studied the molecules since 1995. “There must be a reason why these endocannabinoids are always there.”4
In fact, these endocannabinoids may be among the oldest neurotransmitters in our bodies. As Maccarrone explains, they may have been a part of our evolution going back as far as 156 million years ago, even before cannabis plants themselves are known to have existed.
Within this master signaling system, our bodies produce chemicals that mirror the plant chemicals found in cannabis. We use these chemicals to calm our central nervous systems. As Thiessen says, they are the keys to open up doors within our bodies so that we can eat, sleep and function at our highest levels. They regulate everything that we do.
But maybe the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, and how essential it is to our survival, shouldn’t be so surprising. It’s a fundamental part of how our body works, just as essential as our nervous systems.
We can thank Dr. Raphael Mechoulam for that discovery.
Born in 1930, Raphael Mechoulam and his family left their native Hungary because of the Holocaust. His father barely survived a concentration camp while the rest of the family was able to hide. Together, they sought solace in Israel in 1949.
A biochemist, Mechoulam was the first person to isolate the Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (TH C) molecule, and this led him on the path to CBD as early as the 1960s. In 1992, along with Lumír Hanuš5 and William Devane,6 he discovered that the human brain produces its very own chemicals that mirror cannabis: endogenous cannabinoids. Hanuš, originally from the Czech Republic, and Devane, an American researcher, named it anandamide after the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning bliss. Later, the team also discovered 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-Ag), another endocannabinoid that also helps manage this system. Over the course of decades, Mechoulam has since investigated CBD’s medical efficacy in his lab at Hebrew University in Jerusalem with more than 35,000 patients and research participants.7
When it comes to endocannabinoids, Mechoulam is a legend in the research world. He has published more than 350 scientific peer-reviewed articles, and his research has been cited more than 50,000 times by other scholars. In his eighties, Mechoulam is still actively pursuing new information on endocannabinoids. Why?
“Nothing happened,” he said. “Nothing happened for thirty years after we made our discovery. The neurologists were not very interested, nobody was very interested until parents found out that cannabis plants that contain a lot of cannabidiol work for children with epilepsy. Now we know that it helps relieve diabetes type I, which is an autoimmune disease. It’s an excellent anti-schizophrenic drug. We’re doing research on addiction, jointly in collaboration with four groups—a group in Richmond, Virginia; a group in Canada; a group in Italy; as well as our team.”
The heart of all of these findings is that CBD helps our nervous system function properly.
First, it helps to alleviate pain. Neuropathic pain, the kind that is associated with having a stroke, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis or arthritis, is the hardest to treat. It’s essentially the nervous system in shock, twenty-four hours a day, because of chronic inflammation. Opioids rarely work at all with neuropathy, but CBD can decrease or even fully relieve this type of pain.8
Second, CBD can help address mental health issues that are caused by misfiring impulses in the brain related to the nervous system, especially those caused by stress. Think about PTSD, depression and anxiety, as well as obsessive compulsive disorder.
Third, neurodegenerative diseases such as epilepsy and other seizures, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other forms of dementia are nervous system disorders that have been directly improved by CBD, as research that goes back more than thirty years has shown.9
Looking at this list, it’s impressive. It’s not hard to see why researchers are excited about everything that CBD can do, but it doesn’t mean that CBD can solve everything that ails us.
As Walsh tells it, “I think the two biggest myths about cannabis are, first of all, that it is a miracle drug that can cure everything. The other one is that it’s not a medicine at all and that it has no actual value. I think both sides are missing the point. What I do know is that it has tremendous therapeutic potential. It’s not a miracle drug because there are no miracle drugs; that’s why we say ‘miracle,’ because they’re not real. But in terms of a drug that has multiple applications, that has unknown potential—absolutely, I can’t think of anything with greater potential right now than cannabis medicines.”
We need healthier endocannabinoid systems
Let’s get down to the core thing you need to know.
Chronic inflammation and stress affect most Americans, and when this happens, our brains and central nervous systems are not able to gear down to rest and digest. This is true even if you don’t have a disease.
We need healthier endocannabinoid systems, and this all comes down to brainwaves. CBD works better than other treatments by engaging four interacting types of brainwaves, building what scientists call neuroplasticity: the ability to shift the way that we make positive connections in our brains in response to stress.
Our four brainwaves are called alpha, beta, delta and theta states. Each of these states represents a different way in which we process the world around us and the way that we respond to stimuli in our environment. The lower the number of brainwaves and the longer they last, the less you are aware of everything else in the room, at least on a conscious level.
Beta waves are the shortest. Think of beta brainwaves as short and violent choppy turbulence, like when waves crash on a beach. We need all of our body’s functions for specific tasks, but the beta state is associated with our adrenal system, which most people call our fight-or-flight response. This is both good and bad. This system activates when you are in danger, and you either run, fight for your life or freeze. It doesn’t always have to represent something that dire, though. Remember when you were learning to drive a car? I bet you weren’t exactly laid back and relaxed. But that was a good thing, because you paid a lot of attention to the road. If you’ve ever had to use a chainsaw or perform a heart-transplant surgery, you want to be able to access your beta state. But we can’t reasonably operate in a beta state all the time. It’s a state of constant stress.
The alpha state is our natural awake state, and it’s the state in which we are the healthiest. We all want to be in the alpha state as much as we can because it’s associated with regulation and homeostasis: balance. When you’re in alpha, you’re relaxed and your digestive system works perfectly. This state balances your cardiac output, oxygen and carbon dioxide, as well as your consciousness and body temperature. It can manage your production of insulin, the regulation of your food intake, your water and electrolyte balance and your metabolism. It’s the state in which you are the most calm and focused, which in the end will help you make better decisions.
We may want to be in an alpha state, but the reality is that we are in beta most of the time.
In the theta state, your brain activity is higher, but you are still this stage, marked by very long brain waves, your body deeply neutralizes stress. Many people train to access the theta state through meditation, in which they experience this healing sleep-like state, while they are fully awake and conscious of their surroundings.
The brainwave state with which you might be the most familiar is that of delta waves. When we go into a delta state, we’re asleep, and this is where our brainwaves are longest.
When you are in deep dreamless sleep, your mind produces about one brainwave per second at 0.5 Hertz to 3 Hertz. This is a necessary human state: if you don’t reach delta stage every night, you won’t release the hormones your body needs for your organs and nervous system to recover from the impact of your day. You literally can’t survive without proper sleep. Delta brainwaves are long: think of them like the glassy wavelengths in water that surfers ride. You may have heard of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep; this can occur during the delta stage, or between delta and alpha.
All particles, all atoms in your body are oscillators, moving up and down with some amplitude, and these can oscillate in different directions. With turbulence, they can even crash into each other.
Imagine a 500-mile-per-hour wave, five miles deep and eighteen miles wide, moving at jet speed across the Pacific. In this wave, all molecules move in synchrony; they are emergent and coherent. As the depth compresses to the shoreline, this glassy global wave gets compressed, and no longer are all of its particles cooperating. It begins to wind back and crunch into other parts of the water, and the quantity of parallel directions goes turbulent. What was once a glassy gigantic wave has become countless microscopic turbulences, and all that exists is a disconnected noise.
Your mind exists with these same principles. Your brain produces a collective pattern in the electromagnetic spectrum in light, as well as in the chemical exchanges that take place there. When in a calm, relaxed stage where your body is able to recharge. When you’re in a state of fear, when you’re overheated, have depression or attention deficit disorder, the average wavelength is short.
Your brain is only supposed to move toward turbulence in special emergency situations, and even in those situations it’s not a great idea. When you’re in that state of turbulence, you are stressed, numb and unable to achieve your goals.
What CBD does is increase the ratio of alpha and theta brainwaves to the rest of your other neurological operations. This can not only relax the body and improve digestion, but it can raise your performance on creative problem-solving tests. When we have a high level of neuroplasticity, we experience a sensation of relaxed but focused calm and safety in our body and mind, whether we consciously notice it or not. In turn, this state subdues the inflammation response throughout our bodies.
CBD is not the only pathway to neuroplasticity. We can achieve the same effects, and create our own endocannabinoids in our systems, by controlling our minds through meditation, taking regular walks in nature and reducing stress in our lives. The thing is, CBD calms and soothes the nervous system more easily and makes it more likely to recover from illness faster by opening up those doors to shifts in our bodies and minds.
1. [Russo, E. (2002). Cannabis treatments in obstetrics and gynecology: a historical review. Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, 2(3–4), 17, 5–35.]↩
2. [Interview with Steve De Angelo.]↩
3. [Interview with Steve De Angelo.]↩
4. [Scudellari, M. (2017, June 17). Your body is teeming with weed receptors. The Scientist. Retrieved from https://www.the-scientist.com/features/ your-body-is-teeming-with-weed-receptors-31233]↩
5. [Google Scholar. (2018). Lumír Hanuš. Retrieved from https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=evhW-98aaaaJ&hl=en]↩
6. [Google Scholar. (2018). William Devane. Retrieved from https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=-VQ48MUaaaaJ&hl=en]↩
7. [Interview with Lumír Hanuš and Raphael Mechoulam.]↩
8. [Langford, R.M., Mares, J., Novotna, A., Vachova, M., Novakova, I., Notcutt, W., & Ratcliffe, S. (2013). A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, parallel- group study of thC/CBD oromucosal spray in combination with the existing treatment regimen, in the relief of central neuropathic pain in patients with multiple sclerosis. Journal of Neurology, 260(4), 984–997; Serpell, M., Ratcliffe, S., Hovorka, J., Schofield, M., Taylor, L., Lauder, H., & Ehler, E. (2014). A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, parallel group study of thC/ CBD spray in peripheral neuropathic pain treatment. European Journal of Pain, 18(7), 999–1012; Gado, F., Di Cesare Mannelli, L., Lucarini, E., Bertini, S., Cappelli, E., Digiacomo, M. , . . . & Pertwee, R.G. (2018). Identification of the first synthetic allosteric modulator of the CB2 receptors and evidence of its efficacy for neuropathic pain relief. Journal of Medicinal Chemistry., doi:10.1021/ acs.jmedchem.8b00368]↩
9. [Langner, J. & Zajicek, A. (2017). Social construction of drug policies and target populations: US policy and media discourse. Acta Universitatis Lodziensis. Folia Sociologica.]↩