How Does Medical Marijuana Work?
How Does it Work?
Just like any other drug you take, prescription or over the counter, marijuana works in your brain and nervous system to change the messages you receive. It is hard for some people to make the mental jump from marijuana as a recreational drug to a therapeutic medicine, but the way it works is exactly the same. Medical professionals have just figured out how to harness the effects of marijuana for healing.
Think about the effects of marijuana that you are aware of. It relaxes you, calms you down, makes you feel good, and it can give you the munchies. Medical marijuana has these same effects, only they are concentrated and are applied to relieving the symptoms of the disease. From reducing anxiety to stimulating appetite, marijuana has many legitimate medical uses.
A Quick Overview of Brain Function
The brain is a complex organ that manages all bodily functions, thoughts, and emotions. Most of this is handled by a chemical-based communication system. The chemicals, called neurotransmitters, are produced in the brain or in other parts of the nervous system. They carry their messages to structures called receptors.
The receptors read the messages and react. Some send out chemical messages of their own to adjust physical functioning, like slowing the heart rate or moving your hand away from the fire. Others produce emotion-inducing brain chemicals to increase your feelings of stress or euphoria. It all happens in the brain.
The brain can be broken down into various types of neurotransmitters and their corresponding receptors. While a simple message might mean one type of neurotransmitter is sent out and received by the appropriate receptor, most messages that go through your brain involve a unique combination of neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters tend to work together in groups. Serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline, for example, are sometimes referred to as the happy chemicals. Shades of emotion are determined by the balance between these three neurotransmitters in different areas of the brain.
The neurotransmitters swirling around in your brain allow you to do everything from wiggling your big toe to remembering your sixth birthday party. Modern medicine has begun to map out which neurotransmitters and receptors are involved in each brain function and use that information to create drugs that can improve the quality of life.
Pain is one of the primary symptoms we seek to understand and control through brain chemistry. By adding chemicals to the brain that block certain types of receptors, we can be sure the neurotransmitters carrying those pain messages are not received. After studying the effects of certain substances on the brain, and then isolating the chemicals responsible for the desired effect, scientists attempt to synthesize those natural chemicals in a way that delivers the desired results with as few side-effects as possible.
How Marijuana Works in the Brain
Marijuana has been used for centuries to alter brain chemistry. Medical science has recently unlocked some of the mysteries of how it works, and now we are able to use it to target specific symptoms.
The primary active chemical in marijuana, as identified in the 1960s, is delta-9-tetrahydrocabbabinol (THC). Eventually the whole endocannabinoid system in the brain was discovered. It consists of cannabinoid receptors that THC connects with and some natural brain chemicals that also work in those receptors.
The cannabinoid receptors exist in different parts of the brain and can be involved in several different body and brain functions. This fact is significant for medicinal marijuana because it allows for different outcomes based partly on the delivery system. Where and how the THC reaches the brain determines what effects the patient feels.
Active Ingredients in Marijuana
In addition to THC, the most well-known chemical component in marijuana, there are several other cannabinoids. Many of these chemicals were more recently discovered, and some are still being tested to find their specific functions and the best medical applications for them.
The cannabinoids that are best known are these:
- Cannabidiol (CBD)
- Cannabavarin (THCV)
- Cannabinol (CBN)
- Cannabichromene (CBC)
- Cannabitriol (CBT)
- Cannabicyclol (CBL)
- Cannabigerol (CBG)
Not all of the active ingredients in marijuana are responsible for providing the high. With some alterations, marijuana can be administered for its medicinal properties without the risk of altered consciousness.
One active ingredient in marijuana that does not have any psychoactive properties is CBD. It does not interact with the cannabinoid receptors, but rather, works with THC to heighten its effects to reduce pain and muscle spasms. CBD can reduce anxiety and panic attacks. It also increases the amount of THC in the brain.
On its own, CBD protects nerves, provides sedation, reduces inflammation and lessens the severity of epileptic seizures. As an anti-oxidant, it also protects against oxidation. CBD holds a lot of promise for protecting against cancer, brain and nerve damage in strokes, infections like mad cow disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. One key to exploiting the properties of CBD to prevent disease is getting the dosage right. Taken in too large or too small of quantities, CBD is not very effective.
Future studies are planned to evaluate the effectiveness of CBD for treating psychotic disorders, arthritis, epilepsy and inflammatory bowel disease.
Another component of marijuana that has therapeutic benefits and little or no psychoactive properties is CBN. This compound is also a fairly common subject of marijuana research. Each type of cannabis grown has a different combination of cannabinoids and offers slightly different therapeutic benefits.
Here is a chart that summarizes the basic uses of each cannabinoid:
|Anorexia, Cachexia, gastro-intestinal disorders, nausea
|CBD, THC, THCa
|CBD, CBG, THC
|Bipolar, OCD, PTSD
|CBC, CBD, CBG, CBN, THC
|CBC, CBD, CBDa, CBG, CBN, THC, THCa
|CBC, CBD, CBN, THC, THCv
|CBC, CBD, CBN, THC
|CBD, CBN, THC
|Spinal injury, phantom limb, migraine, headache, cramps
|CBD, CBN, THCa, THCv
|CBD, CBN, THC, THCa
|CBC, CBD, CBG, THC, THCa
|CBD, CBG, CBN, THC, THCa
|CBC, CBD, CBG, CBN, THCv
|CBC, CBD, CBG, CBN, THC, THCa
|CBC, CBD, CBDa, CBG, THC, THCa
|CBC, CBD, CBG, THC
Benefits of Marijuana
Research into the active ingredients in marijuana and studies of some of their uses are still new. While results in some areas have been proven, there is more to be discovered about how marijuana works and how it can be used to relieve symptoms and cure or prevent disease.
Some of the benefits of marijuana include:
- Pain and muscle spasm relief: Medical marijuana is beneficial in reducing pain, especially pain from damaged nerves that other types of pain relievers cannot help. People who suffer from chronic pain understand how important that is. Pain that goes untreated can become its own health problem in addition to the underlying cause. Chronic pain can have mental as well as physical side effects.
- Medical marijuana also reduces pain and muscle spasms in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). In addition, marijuana treatment shows promise for MS patients in reducing the painful numbness and burning pain associated with the disease, as well as calming the overactive bladder.
- Treatment for glaucoma: Marijuana is an effective treatment for glaucoma. It can help patients avoid blindness by reducing the pressure in the eyes. The chemical in marijuana that reduces intraocular pressure, cannabidiol (CBD) does not have psychoactive properties. Taking CBD does not produce a high, but it has other benefits.
- Appetite stimulant: Marijuana can stimulate appetite in patients undergoing chemotherapy or other strong drug therapies that usually interfere with appetite. Using medical marijuana helps these patients consume nutrients that will help their bodies heal and also avoid dangerous weight loss.
Medical marijuana can also:
- Restore normal sleep patterns
- Eliminate nausea, especially from chemotherapy
- Reduce anxiety and depression
- Relieve stress
These healing properties of medical marijuana have a number of applications. There are several different varieties of cannabis, and each has a slightly different effect. As the active ingredients are isolated, studied and synthesized, advances in medical marijuana treatments continue.
There are a number of disorders where medical marijuana treatment has shown promise in reducing symptoms or curing the disease altogether, including:
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Amotivational Syndrome
- Lung disease
- Familial Mediterranean fever
- Heart disease
- Huntington’s disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
- Sickle cell disease
- Spinal cord injury
- Wilson’s disease
Marijuana treatment provides hope for many people suffering from chronic diseases. With continued research, this list should grow.
Marijuana Medical Uses You Might Find Surprising
Although medical marijuana only recently became available and is not even legal in all states, there are already many uses for the substance. If you have any experience with marijuana, you know some of the things it can do. You might be surprised by some of these applications for marijuana therapy:
- Treats sexually transmitted diseases — Certain STDs respond to medical marijuana treatment, including herpes and chlamydia.
- Improves speech problems — Stuttering involves muscle spasms that are triggered by certain stressful situations. By calming anxiety and reducing muscle spasms, marijuana is a possible treatment for certain types of speech impairments.
- Reduces obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — Anxiety is at the root of most OCD problems. The repetitive behaviors are usually triggered by worry or anxiety. Marijuana can reduce anxiety, so OCD does not get in the way of living your life.
- Overcomes erectile dysfunction (ED) — Marijuana shows promise as a replacement for Viagra in the struggle against ED for some men.
- Helps treat autism in children — Further research is needed, but marijuana may be a useful treatment for autism. It shows promise by controlling violent mood swings in some autistic children.
- Heals broken bones faster — The CBD in marijuana reacts with collagen, making bones heal faster.
- Treats addiction — That’s right. Marijuana can be used to wean addicts off of more serious drugs like cocaine and heroin. When administered and monitored, marijuana can be used to break the hold of addiction and ease the patient into recovery.
- Improves lung health — Despite the fact that most people associate marijuana with smoking, it can actually improve lung health. Marijuana has shown great promise in fighting emphysema and lung cancer. Smoking may not be the best delivery system for this application, however.
Medical Marijuana Benefits
One of the surprising medical uses for cannabis is to improve lung health. Studies show that marijuana can increase lung capacity in a side-by-side test with tobacco smokers. The marijuana smokers did not show the same decline in lung function as the cigarette smokers. In fact, their lungs actually got healthier.
Some have cited the fact that marijuana smokers breathe deeply as a possible reason for the increased lung capacity. This result did not hold true for test subjects who smoked marijuana more than 20 times a month. Others held that the study was proof that regular cigarette smoking does diminish lung capacity. There is no plausible explanation for the improved lung capacity of marijuana smokers, yet.
There are, of course, other ways of consuming marijuana without smoking and subjecting your throat and lungs to the heat and toxins. When marijuana is vaporized, there is no evidence of harmful side-effects in the lungs. The vapor is not as hot as smoke, and it does not contain the by-products of burning.
When medical marijuana is recommended by a marijuana doctor, the delivery system is matched with the desired outcome. Smoking marijuana is usually recommended for patients who are suffering from serious and even terminal disease. Anyone who is vulnerable to lung disease or already has compromised lung function would more likely be recommended medical marijuana in a different form.
One of the lesser-known benefits of marijuana therapy is that it can be administered in a variety of different ways. Inhaling marijuana is one of the fastest ways to feel the relief it brings from pain and nausea. However, a couple drops of a marijuana tincture under the tongue deliver fast results without lighting up. There are even topical forms of marijuana treatment that give localized results and do not produce any sort of high in the brain.
Can Medical Marijuana Work for You?
When the medicinal benefits of marijuana were first discovered, it was used for the most severe cases of cancer. Smoking marijuana seemed to make strong courses of chemotherapy more bearable by eliminating nausea and vomiting. Some people were able to look past concerns of addiction because these patients were possibly terminal. Marijuana was the only substance that might ease the pain and anxiety of facing those final days.
Marijuana therapy has come a long way in recent years. Its benefits are better studied and understood, and it is applied to many different conditions now. Medical marijuana is no longer just a last resort treatment. It can actually be part of a healthy maintenance routine for some conditions.
Medical marijuana might be the right treatment for you if:
- You have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment for any disease. These treatments can be very harsh and can cause severe nausea for prolonged periods of time. Not only is nausea uncomfortable, but it also poses additional health risks. Nausea can reduce appetite, which, over long periods of time, will threaten your ability to take in enough nutrients. Chronic vomiting depletes your body of needed fluids, and it can irritate your esophagus.
- You suffer from chronic pain that is not well controlled by other means. Chronic pain can produce its own serious physical and mental side-effects. In recent decades, medical science has learned the importance of managing pain to maintain overall health. The nervous system delivers pain messages in a number of different ways. Marijuana has a unique way of interrupting those messages, and it can be useful in cases where other analgesics fail.
- You are addicted to opioids or heroin. Although it sounds counter-intuitive to take a drug to overcome addiction, in certain cases this method is very effective. Opioid addiction can be very hard to get away from and, like any addiction, it is life-threatening. Marijuana can be used to wean you off of the opioids without causing you to suffer severe withdrawal and cravings. It is often those intense cravings that make addiction recovery seem impossible. Marijuana is a good substitute for these stronger narcotics, and it has a soothing quality at the same time. Treatment for addiction by any means should be closely monitored by a medical professional.
- You are afflicted with seizures from epilepsy or a traumatic brain injury. Seizures are a series of mis-firings in the brain that can be disruptive to your daily life and pose a life-threatening risk to your health. There are a number of seizure therapies available, but they don’t always work. Sometimes your brain gets used to a particular drug, and then it is not effective anymore. Marijuana treatment could reduce your seizures and help your brain heal.
- You are diagnosed with a degenerative disease like muscular dystrophy. Muscle pain is one of the symptoms of this type of disease, and it can be very painful. Muscles tighten and cramp involuntarily making it difficult to function. Marijuana could reduce your muscle pain by relaxing those muscles.
- You have an anxiety disorder or depression. It has been suggested that anxiety and depression exist on a continuum. They affect the same parts of the brain and involve the same brain chemicals. These two conditions can be difficult to treat, as their causes are varied. Medical marijuana reduces anxiety and can be delivered in a form that acts very quickly for acute attacks. It also can be administered as a mood-enhancer to combat depression.
- You suffer from unexplained pain. Marijuana soothes nerves and might be able to reduce your pain, even though the physical cause is mysterious.
- You are desperate for a treatment that works to make you feel better. Medical marijuana is able to work in the brain in ways that other drugs cannot. This makes it a good fit for many difficult-to-treat ailments. Its combination of soothing pain relief and anxiety-reducing stimulation might be good for you.
To find out if medical marijuana can help you, you first need to find a doctor who is experienced in marijuana treatment recommendations. In the state of Florida, there is a system set up to help you access marijuana therapy if it is right for you. State certified doctors can recommend for patients to get their medical marijuana from state-licensed dispensaries.
To begin your journey to relief through medical marijuana, start by checking your eligibility for medical marijuana at dev1.docmj.com. Our website explains the whole procedure and gets your eligibility results fast. Once you know you are eligible, we can help you find the right doctor for you and even give you information about local dispensaries.
It takes time to get medical marijuana in the state of Florida. Once you connect with a doctor, your medical situation will be assessed according to standard medical protocols. Our marijuana doctors will get to know you and find the right treatment for you. If you have any questions in the meantime, our medical professionals are standing by to take your call for a free consultation.
Dr. Glider is a board certified Internal Medicine Specialist. He received his Florida Medical Marijuana Physicians Certification in 2017 and was one of the first recommending physicians with DocMJ. In addition to medical marijuana recommendations, Dr. Glider continues to practice Internal and Geriatric Medicine in private practice. Additionally, he serves as Medical Director for a home health company, supervising and educating staff, as well as supervising an advanced Registered Nurse Practitioners for a transitional care program.
Dr. Glider graduated from the College of Osteopathic Medicine & Surgery in Des Moines, IA and completed his residency at Saddlebrook General Hospital in Saddlebrook, NJ. He has received several honors and awards throughout his professional career, including a City of Des Moines Merit Award and a Chamber of Commerce Award (Port St. Lucie, FL). Dr. Glider is an experienced and caring physician who is loved and respected by his peers and his patients.