Photo by Kimzey Nanney on Unsplash
By Lisa Profera MD
Can a small dose of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) help you? The short answer is yes.
The days of THC being vilified as a drug of abuse or a gateway drug are mostly behind us. As you know, THC is the chemical in marijuana that is responsible for the feeling of being “high.” The recreational market is flooded with cannabis strains that have potent amounts of THC for people who desire its psychoactive effect. However, there’s now a trend on the medical side of the cannabis industry toward micro-dosing THC. A little THC can help with pain, improve the quality of sleep, reduce stress, and treat other medical issues.
The cannabis plant has been used by humans as medicine for over ten thousand years. The first documented medical use for the plant was in China 2,500 years ago. Its prohibition is fairly recent. It appeared in the US Pharmacopeia in 1851, but it was removed in 1942 for political/social reasons (read more in Martin Lee’s book, Smoke Signals). In 1970, marijuana was listed as a Schedule I controlled substance in the US, putting in the same category as heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. As such, cannabis was classified as having no medicinal value by the federal government, despite the vast body of research (some of it done by US government institutions like the NIH, but most of it coming from Europe and Israel) proving its value as medicine.
Despite the federal decree, marijuana is recognized as medicine in our state and many others. Unfortunately, most US research is stymied by the DEA. It’s not impossible to conduct cannabis research here, but it’s a very difficult process. Most American physicians want to see evidence-based studies done by American researchers, so they often say that they can’t recommend cannabis due to a lack of research. Meanwhile, outside of the US, the research world of medical marijuana is exploding. Pharmaceutical companies are racing to make synthetic copies of the chemicals that bind to our cannabinoid receptors, such as THC and the enzymes that modulate the endocannabinoid system.
What do we know about THC? Delta-9 THC was first isolated by Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam in 1964. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) was discovered in 1988; cannabinoid receptors in humans were identified because THC was able to bind to them. In 1992, the two cannabinoids that our bodies naturally produce were discovered: anandamide and 2-AG (2-arachidonoylglycerol). The ECS is deeply embedded in our genes, as it is the “master-control” system of all of the other systems in our body (the nervous system, the musculoskeletal system, the digestive system, etc). Its main job is to balance and regulate the other systems, achieving homeostasis. Sometimes when our bodies are challenged by chronic stress, injury, infection, environmental toxins, and other causes, our ECS can’t balance itself out on its own. This is where a little help from the cannabis plant can be life-changing.
Isolated synthetic forms of THC have been used medically in the US for a few decades now, but it’s abundantly clear now that they don’t measure up that well to the real thing. In 1986, the FDA approved the use of Marinol® for nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy. Additional approval for weight loss caused by HIV/AIDS followed, as THC is known to stimulate appetite. Interestingly enough, Marinol®, a synthetic copy of THC, is listed as a Schedule III drug along with amphetamines, barbiturates, ketamine, some forms of codeine, and anabolic steroids. Usually, patients taking Marinol® don’t tolerate it as well as the natural cannabis plant, and side effects have been reported. Cesamet® is another synthetic THC analogue approved for use in the US for treatment of nausea. There is evidence of its analgesic effects, especially as it applies to neuropathic pain. Studies show that Cesamet® has some effect in relieving pain associated with fibromyalgia. It has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, as well as inflammatory conditions such as ulcerative colitis. On the black market, the synthetic drug HU-210, also known as Spice or K2, is more toxic to the brain and more addictive than naturally-grown THC from marijuana. It has induced acute psychosis in some users and evidence suggests that it triggers long-term psychiatric problems. It turns out that the synthetic versions of THC, both legal and illegal, act differently in the human body than the whole plant would.
As I’ve said before, our bodies produce our own THC analogues. Anandamide (AEA) is our own naturally-occurring version of THC. It regulates pain and pleasure, anxiety and mood stabilization, and our overall sense of well-being. Its name is derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning bliss. AEA also plays a key role in forgetting. Why is that important? Forgetting is almost as important as remembering. Our brain is constantly editing out what’s not important, what’s not worth “sweating about” so to speak. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to function as our brain would be filled with insignificant or even painful memories and experiences that have accumulated throughout our lives. If a woman could feel the intense pain of childbirth every day of her life after having a child, do you think she would have another? People with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and other anxiety disorders suffer from sustained or reoccurring thoughts and memories of painful physical or emotional experiences. Forgetting is a good thing, in this respect.
In small doses, THC derived from marijuana can have many clinical benefits. It can take the edge off of pain without the dangers of opioids. In addition to its analgesic effects, THC is an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory. It’s a wonderful natural sleep aid that doesn’t leave you groggy in the morning. THC is neuro-protective, which means that it helps neurons function normally in our brain. It also aids in the process of apoptosis, which is the process of killing off old or dysfunctional cells to replace them with newer, healthier cells. There is even promising medical evidence that THC has the ability to kill off highly abnormal cells such as those in glioblastoma multiforme cells (brain cancer).
With prudent use, a little THC can convey many medical benefits with minimal psychoactive effects. In the medical marijuana arena, we always advise the patient to “start low and go slow” in regard to dosing. Knowing how THC affects your personal biochemistry, and understanding dosing and administration, is the key to success. In my medical marijuana consulting practice, I empower my patients with education so that they can make the best decisions for themselves. You can go to www.apothecareannarbor and look at the Education Guide that I wrote. Another excellent source of information can be found at www.projectcbd.org.
Last fall, I wrote a series of articles about CBD for BRICK magazine. Virtually every patient that I’ve been consulting with over the last eight months or so has been stressed and anxious. We’ve been challenged in many ways in 2020. CBD and THC work together as a “power couple,” helping us re-balance our ECS — in short, helping us get back to normal. Now more than ever, it’s important to find your bliss.
Lisa Profera MD
Owner and Founder of PROJUVU MD
Aesthetics and Lifestyle Medicine in Ann Arbor, MI
Medical Director, Facial Innovations Medi-spa, Ann Arbor
Medical Director, Northville Beauty Spa
Certified Medical Marijuana Doctor
Certified doTERRA Essential Oils Expert
BEMER Independent Distributor
CrossFit® Level 1 Trainer
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Please note that the information in this article has been designed to help educate the reader regarding the subject matter covered. This information is provided with the understanding that the author and any other entity referenced here are not liable for the misconception or misuse of the information provided. It is not provided to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any disease, illness, or injured condition of the body. The provider of this information shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity concerning any loss, damage, or injury caused or alleged to be caused directly or indirectly by this information. The information presented is in no way intended as a substitute for medical counseling or care. Anyone suffering from any disease, illness, or injury should consult a qualified healthcare professional. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.