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Cannabinoid-Based Medicine: How and Why Is Cannabis Medicine?

Despite a more than 5,000 year history of safe, medicinal cannabis use, science is just starting to understand cannabinoid-based medicine.

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Cannabinoid-Based Medicine
PHOTO | Don Goofy

Weed. Drug. Banned substance. Medicine. The cannabis plant goes by many monikers.

Recent history has vilified what ancient history commended. Now, as more and more people around the world gain access to cannabis, it’s become better known for its therapeutic properties.

Millions of American use cannabis every day to help treat symptoms of conditions that range from epilepsy to PTSD, cancer, to nausea. Patients most commonly use it to treat chronic pain, and symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, arthritis, insomnia and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), to name a few.

But, what makes marijuana medicinal? The (short) answer is cannabinoids.

Cannabinoids – or phytocannabinoids – are the naturally occurring group of active chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant. There are over 100 different cannabinoids; some of the most well known are Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD).

Both CBD and THC are the main chemicals used in cannabis-based medicine. But, each cannabinoid has a different effect on the body (not all are known). THC is known for the psychoactive or high effect it induces. CBD, on the other hand, is non-psychoactive.

In fact, most cannabinoids do not have psychoactive effects. Each is thought to influence the body in different ways. Research suggests that some cannabinoids like cannabinol (CBN) treat symptoms associated with inflammation or pain, while others (THC, CBD) have neuroprotective qualities.

Individual cannabinoids can be isolated and extracted, or synthesized. The concept is used in the development of synthetic cannabinoid-based medicines, such as Marinol. Isolating compounds allows humans to reap the benefits of particular cannabinoids. However, it’s believed that these chemicals work most effectively when used together, known as the entourage effect.

Understanding Cannabinoid-Based Medicine

So, how do these compounds actually affect our bodies?

When consumed, cannabinoids activate or trigger receptors. Those receptors are found throughout our bodies – e.g. organs, nervous system, brain, connective tissue, immune cells, glands, etc. – and help make up the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a biochemical communication system within our bodies.

To oversimplify: If cannabinoids were keys, receptors are the locks. Once unlocked, receptors send messages to cells.

Researchers have so far found two types of receptors: CB1 and CB2. Each has a different role to play, and each responds differently to various cannabinoids. (There are other receptors thought to engage with cannabinoids, but these are the main ones).

The highest concentration of CB1 receptors is found in the brain and in the spinal cord. CB2 receptors are predominantly found in immune cells and GI tract.

Interestingly, high densities of CB1 receptors are found in the hippocampus, cerebellum and other regions in the brain responsible for regulating appetite, mood, memory, etc. They’re also found in nerve endings.

Due to the concentration of CB2 receptors in immune cells, they are thought to help the body respond to disease.

These receptors are also activated by our body’s own cannabinoids aka endocannabinoids. One such endocannabinoid is anandamide or the bliss molecule. It’s a neurotransmitter that’s produced on demand by the body when it’s needed. Anandamide is fragile, like all other neurotransmitters. It’s known to regulate mood, appetite, pain, cell regulation, and even reproduction.

A scientific study published last year was the latest to focus the research community on the potential of the GPR55 receptor, which is now known to be the third identified receptor.

Unlike most other cannabinoids, research suggests that CBD does not directly bind to the receptors mentioned above. Instead, it’s believed to help build up our body’s supply of anandamide. It does this by inhibiting the FAAH enzymes that deplete levels of anandamide, and other endocannabinoids.

Despite a more than 5,000 year history of safe, medicinal cannabis use, science is just starting to understand cannabinoids, cannabinoid-based medicine and the ECS. What we do know about this complex system is that it has a vital role to play in the human body.

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Borneol: The Terpene That Improves Your Heart and Gut Health

This terpene Borneol offers many health benefits, including improved digestion (via the stimulation of gastric juices) and better blood circulation.

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Borneol
PHOTO | Jesse Barney

Of the 20,000 aromatic molecules called terpenes found throughout nature, roughly 200 have been discovered in the cannabis herb. As an aggregate, the most common health efficacies offered by cannabis-derived terpenes are reduced systemic inflammation, anti-cancer properties, and analgesic (pain-killing) benefits. The terpene Borneol emits an odor involving scents of camphor, earth, and menthol; its scent is sometimes described as “herbal minty.” It is found in many plants other than cannabis, including camphor, mint, and rosemary. It is a natural insect repellent and is utilized industrially in the manufacture of perfumes and colognes.

Borneol is not extremely common in cannabis. Strains of cannabis offering more significant amounts of this terpene include Hazes and K-13.

The Details of Borneol

This terpene offers many health benefits, including improved digestion (via the stimulation of gastric juices) and better blood circulation. It also effectively treats bronchial symptoms to improve lung function and ease breathing (helpful for sufferers of bronchitis and asthma). Like many of its sibling terpenes, it has been found to reduce anxiety.

Borneol also assists in the healing of wounds. Historically, it has been incorporated into topical treatments for such applications, including the treatment of hemorrhoids. Combined with other terpenes that convey sedative qualities — such as myrcene and linalool — the terpene can effectively combat insomnia. It is also antibacterial and antiseptic.

Borneol exemplifies the dynamics of the entourage effect, a theory that cannabinoids and terpenes work together, synergistically, to offer particular therapeutic and medicinal benefits to humans via supplementation of the mammalian endocannabinoid system (ECS). Borneol amplifies the permeability of the blood/brain barrier, allowing other molecules and compounds to more efficiently bind with specialized receptors in the brain and central nervous system.

When isolated, it can act as an irritant to eyes, skin, and the respiratory system. As a good demonstration of the impact of accurate and strategic titration (dosing), at large doses, it is extremely toxic and harmful if swallowed. A “probable lethal dose” is 50-500 mg/kg of body weight, which equates to between only a teaspoon and an ounce for a 150-pound human.

The Research

Multiple studies have demonstrated the wide-ranging medicinal efficacy of the terpene, including its pronounced role as an anti-inflammatory, bronchodilator, and cancer killer.

A 2017 study entitled “Terpenes from Forests and Human Health” and published in the journal Toxicological Research investigated how borneol reduced inflammation of the lungs. Concluded the researchers, “Borneol alleviated acute lung inflammation by reducing inflammatory infiltration, histopathological changes, and cytokine production.”

A 2013 study published in the journal PLOS ONE and entitled “Natural Borneol, a Monoterpenoid Compound, Potentiates Selenocystine-induced Apoptosis in Human Hepatocellular Carcinoma Cells” revealed the anti-cancer properties of this terpene.

The study’s researchers concluded, “Borneol effectively synergized with SeC to reduce cancer cell growth through the triggering apoptotic cell death. These results reveal that borneol strongly potentiates SeC-induced apoptosis in cancer cells by enhancement of cellular uptake. Borneol could be further developed as a chemosensitizer of SeC in treatment of human cancers.”

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There Needs to Be More Research on How Cannabis Affects Dreams

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How Cannabis Affects Dreams
PHOTO | Jesse Barney

Most people forget their dreams shortly after waking. As soon as the eyelids flutter open, an entire evening of vivid adventures and abstract situations shuffle to an end, often leaving only lingering traces of their presence — a fragment of a dress here, the flashing face of a stranger there. While some individuals may be adept at remembering these mysterious nocturnal encounters, for the most part, the dreaming mind remains an enigma.

For those who consume cannabis, the dreaming self may remain even more elusive. The plant, you see, may prevent the sleeping mind from dreaming. Although cannabis has long been used as a meditation aid and sleep-inducer, preliminary research suggests the trance-inducing herb may suppress some forms of sleep consciousness. Of course, however, research on how cannabis affects dreams is far too premature to make any serious assessments.

The Purpose of Dreaming

Dream science over the past several decades provides more and more hints into the true nature of the dreaming mind. While the exact purpose of dreaming is unclear and dreams are particularly difficult to study, it is generally understood that the dreaming mind is also an emotional mind. While logic and rationality dominate during the day, the unique function of the dreaming mind is to help soothe and come to terms with emotional memories.

Most dreaming occurs during rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). The REM cycle is the closest sleep state to wakefulness when electrical activity in the brain increases, along with heart rate and breathing. During this time, levels of bodily stress hormones drop to their lowest levels. During the day, the hormone norepinephrine increased in the bloodstream in response to everyday stressors and anxieties. At night, however, norepinephrine levels slowly decrease as the dreaming mind takes over.

Brain scans suggest that the dreaming mind is very similar to the waking mind; visual areas of the brain are highly engaged, as well as areas related to memory and conscious thinking. A primary difference, however, is that the waking mind also responds to stress signals by releasing hormones like norepinephrine for fight-or-flight response. When dreaming, even strong emotions are distanced from this fight-or-flight impulse of the nervous system.

While the content of dreams may be very different than your visual memories from everyday life, it appears that emotional memory processing is a core function of REM sleep. The situations that your dreaming self is exposed to may be abstract or downright weird, but the emotional context of the dream may be what holds real value.

How Cannabis Affects Dreams

If dreams are the brain’s way of de-escalating and filing away emotional memories, then the effects of cannabis on dreams are well worth knowing. Thus far, a multitude of preclinical and small human trials show that cannabis consumption causes a reduction in REM sleep. This reduction is most strongly correlated with THC, although animal research thus far hasn’t determined whether or not the same effect occurs with CBD.

For individuals with recurring nightmares, this could be a positive benefit. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, often demonstrate disturbed REM sleep patterns and may consistently remember their dreams. Healthy sleep is sleep that promotes feelings of restfulness upon waking. If a person plagued by chronic nightmares, it can have a distressing impact on the next wakeful day

In PTSD, patients are unable to delete fear-based experiences from their memories. Already, preclinical research suggests that cannabis medicines may be beneficial for those with the condition, potentially helping patients extinguish fear-based memories during the waking day.

And yet, for the everyday individual, the overall effect of cannabis on dreams remains unknown. Research suggests that the plant does, in fact, reduce dreams and limits the amount of time spent in REM sleep. Given that REM sleep is when the body records and desensitizes emotional memories, it’s possible that reducing time spent in REM may have a negative effect on emotional processing.

The catch? Very little research has been conducted on the aftermath of cannabis consumption on dreaming. Although cannabis is one of the most popular illicit sleep aids in the world, no high-quality or conclusive evidence exists on the impact of cannabis on sleep. Further, the bulk of research on the topic was conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, with isolated cannabis compounds and small participant numbers. As a result, the way in which cannabis affects dreaming and the implications this may have on waking life are simply unknown.

REM Rebound

The human brain does not like to go without enough REM sleep. While quality research on cannabis and dreaming is appallingly absent from the scientific literature, what is known, however, is that dreams come back with a vengeance after a brief period of abstinence from the plant. When regular cannabis consumers abstain from the herb, one of the most common side effects of withdrawal is the resurgence of very vivid and memorable dreams. This phenomenon has a proper name: REM rebound.

During REM rebound, a person is able to reach a state of REM sleep more quickly. They’re also more likely to remain in REM sleep for an extended amount of time. This dreaming rebound most often occurs after a person experiences sleep deprivation. The brain, it would seem, opens the floodgates of emotion once you’ve finally safe to hit the hay.

In terms of REM sleep, does cannabis produce similar effects to sleep deprivation? Without more research on how cannabis affects dreams, it’s hard to say.

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Wizard Stones: The Magic of Making Cannabis Diamonds

Aaron Palmer and Graham Jennings, founders of Oleum Extracts in Washington State, talk about Wizard Stones, their THCA isolate product.

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Wizard Stones
PHOTO | Oleum Extracts

Heat, pressure, and time. The three components required to form a diamond from carbon. But what about diamonds made from cannabis? The founders of Oleum Extracts, Aaron Palmer and Graham Jennings both agree that a good diamond product ultimately comes down to the flavor provided by its terpene fraction.

Diamonds is a slang term for the crystal formations of the cannabinoid THCA. The molecule’s lattice structure builds upon itself naturally as individual molecules clump together creating the faceted formations that resemble diamond or quartz.

When most people talk about cannabis diamonds, they’re talking about THCA structures that form in their own terpene sauce. So, it’s a little different technique than other isolation methods.

Oleum —While their chemical composition is the same, the process to make them is slightly different than the traditional diamonds mined from a raw extract. Instead, they use a specially formulated solvent mix to create a solution with a composition that encourages crystallization.

Due to Washington state’s regulations, Oleum is limited in the chemical solvents they can use. So that blend is the crucial variable to isolating THCA into their Wizard Stones product.

Growing cannabis diamonds within their original terpene fraction comes down to creating an environment with the right amounts of pressure and heat to encourage crystal growth.

Within the raw extract, the terpene and cannabinoid compounds are homogenized together, but as they settle and separate the mixture “crashes” — which is the start of crystallization.

Palmer explains that it “helps to create a seed because if there’s nothing for the THCA molecules to grab onto then they have a harder time starting the diamond formation.”

There are a few ways extractors seed a solution to start diamond growth, but Oleum prefers to use freezing temperatures to solidify and then thaw their extract, helping to create small groupings of THCA for other molecules to stack off.

Another common seeding technique is to drop a previously grown crystal into the extracted mixture of cannabis compounds, giving the THCA something to grow off of.

This technique is especially useful when filming a time-lapse of the crystal growth because it gives the camera a focal point knowing where the formation will grow from.

Creating Wizard Stones

The above timelapse video wasphotographed over a four day period by Dankshire. We can see diamonds begin to form almost immediately. However, the crystallization process can take a month if not longer to complete once a raw extract is jarred and waiting to crash.

Oleum utilizes custom-built isolation vessels for their production diamond runs but admits that the jar tech allows more visibility into the process.

Jennings points out, “You see the jars, we even do the jar stuff a lot. It’s more popular… and people know what it is compared to a large isolation vessel that no one can see into it but you know it’s growing 2,000 grams of crystals.”

Each batch can present a different ratio of diamonds to sauce and it seems like everyone wants a little different combination. “We just give ‘em what it makes,” Jennings said.

That’s the beauty of isolated products like cannabis diamonds and sauce; you can mix your own cocktail of cannabis compounds and really dial in the flavors and feelings that you’re after.

Cannabis diamonds grown in their own sauce create a potent, refined, and pronounce expression of the strain they are extracted from.

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